Monday, June 17, 2013

1 Yeezy Taught Me: 7 Things I Learned From Kanye West

By: Marvin DeBose

Kanye West is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic, talented, yet misunderstood artists of our generation. Since his rise to stardom in 2003-2004, he has transcended the world of hip-hop music and become a cultural icon. At the same time, he has been the center of a great deal of controversy as well. This week, he drops his controversial, highly-anticipated (despite being leaked) album, Yeezus. Whether you're a fan of him or not, you've got to admit that there is something unique about him which distinguishes him from many musicians of not only his time, but musicians in general... and there are many things which we can learn from him as well...

1. Believe in your work, even when no one else does.

If there's one personal quality which Kanye is known for, it is his confidence, (or his arrogance, depending on who you ask). In his music, his interviews, his rants and nearly everything else that he does, his strong, nearly fanatical belief in himself shines through. Of course, many people look at this with disdain. People call him "cocky", "arrogant" and "egotistical". But few people understand Kanye's confidence within the context of his history.

Before the record sales, before Kim Kardashian, before Amber Rose, before "Imma let you finish but...", before George Bush didn't care about Black people, before the nearly-fatal car accident, before Rocafella Records, Kanye West was just another young hip-hop producer trying to make a name for himself in the music business. 

Interviewers would butcher his name, often referring to him as "Kayne West" or "Conway West". But Kanye being Kanye, would be quick to correct them mid-interview, "Um... that's Kanye West, Kanye."

When he tried rapping in addition to producing, many people told him that he wouldn't make it as a rapper. At the time, hip-hop was polarized, being focused heavily on gritty, street rap or flashy rap. But Kanye West wasn't a conventional rapper, therefore many people including record company execs didn't see his marketability. (Listen to his song "Last Call" from his 1st album, The College Dropout, to hear him tell it) 

Yet, Kanye West continued to believe in himself.

"Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem. Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams." -Kanye West "Last Call"

Even rapper Talib Kweli once commented that Kanye's confidence now is no different from what it was before the fame, in one interview he said, "The way he is now, he was like that before the money and the fame. He was talking about he was the best producer; ‘I’m the best rapper,’... His attitude was exactly the same."

So what people have to understand is that Kanye's confidence is a huge part of what made him a star. If it weren't for that, he probably wouldn't be the Kanye West who we know today.

Maybe we need to learn to take pride in our work and believe in ourselves a little more so we can reach our full potential... And when you put work into what you do, don't you have a right to believe in your abilities and take pride in your work?

2. Work hard to perfect your craft.

"Y'all don't know my struggle, Y'all can't match my hustle
You can't catch my hustle, You can't fathom my love, dude!
Lock yourself in a room doin' five beats a day for three summers
That's a different world like Cree Summer's, 
I deserve to do these numbers" 

-Kanye West "Spaceship"

Michael Jordan, another friend of "the Chi", once said, "Work ethic eliminates fear". Well, a huge part of Kanye West's confidence and his fearlessness as an artist is rooted in his work ethic. From the countless pre-fame summers of doing "five beats a day" as he described in Spaceship, even to doing 12 hours a day in the studio for his album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", Kanye has always been a workaholic.

Yet, his work ethic is shown in the quality of his music. What he does with his songs and his albums is similar to what an architect does with a skyscraper, what Martin Scorsese does with his movies or what Kobe Bryant does on the court.

You can tell that a great deal of work and focus goes into what he does, and that's something that you cannot help but to admire.

3. Don't wait to get a "foot in the door", kick in the door.

Kanye was never one to wait for people to recognize his talent, he forced people to see his talent. In his pre-fame days he would call music directors of radio stations to get them to play his music, he'd produce the work of countless local, up-and-coming hip-hop artists, and he'd even go on stage and rap during the concerts of  various artists who he'd worked with, such as Talib Kweli, whether he was invited to do so or not.

But eventually, he no longer had to work so hard to become visible as an artist because he had already made a name for himself.

A lot of times we become to passive in waiting for our big break. Yet, through his consistent focus on making himself known as both a rapper and a producer, Kanye went and got his big break.

4. Don't be afraid to speak the truth.

"You can't be afraid to die for the truth. The truth is the only thing that is constant." -Will Smith 

Kanye is one of the most outspoken artists of our time, When it comes to outspokenness entertainers, he's quite similar to what Muhammad Ali was to the Vietnam Era or what Tupac Shakur was to the mid 90s.

Right or wrong, Kanye West tells what he perceives to be the truth. Regardless of how much hostility or controversy he may face as a result.

Now sometimes the way in which he goes about telling the truth is a bit questionable, like the way in which he did with Taylor Swift at the VMAs...

Being unafraid to tell the truth has liberated Kanye in a sense. He's not a slave to his fame, and he's obviously not afraid to piss people off. But more importantly he knows the value of speaking his mind and expressing what he believes to be the truth.

"What more could you ask for? The international asshole
Who complains about what he is owed
And throws a tantrum like he is 3 years-old
You gotta love it through, somebody still speaks from his soul." -Kanye West "Diamonds"

5. Know how to OWN the things which make you different.

As mentioned earlier, Kanye West wasn't a conventional rapper. When everyone was wearing throwback jerseys, making hits with R&B singers on the hook while spitting street-oriented lyrics, Kanye West was the guy in the pink polo shirt with the Louis Vuitton bookbag on.

While many rappers of the time were (some claimed to be) "street dudes", he was the son of a college professor and a former college student. His raps were a complex blend of autobiographical tales, social commentary, braggadocio, humor and wit.  

At first, his differences were not understood, but he didn't care. He didn't change who he was to fit the standards of the industry, he made the industry change to fit his standards. Eventually, he made being "different" cool for many people in the hip-hop industry. As a result, his influence is seen in countless hip-hop artists today. 

6. Be a student of the game.

One of the things which makes Kanye the artist that he is, is his knowledge and love for music and the arts. He once spoke of just listening to countless albums of different artists from all different genres to prepare for one of his albums. He studied the work of producers like No I.D., Timbaland and Dr. Dre when it came to his production career. 

Many people criticize him for using samples in his music, yet, his ability to use samples from songs which often come from more obscure, lesser-known artists of eras pasts, and tying the message of the the sample in with the message or theme of his songs is a talent in itself. 

Kanye's the prime example of the success which can come from studying one's craft.

7. Be groundbreaking

"Did you improve on the design? Did you do something new?
Well your name ain't on the guest list, who brung you?" -Lupe Fiasco

One of the things which has kept Kanye on the top of the game for so long is his ability to keep people guessing by being creative and innovative. Plus, you never know what Kanye is going to say or do as an artist. As his life progresses, his art does the same, and many fans would agree that on every album of his career, there exists an updated version of Kanye.

On top of that, Kanye knows how to do things differently than most artists do. He's a student of visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. Just look at the marketing for his new album, Yeezus. The way in which he premiered his music videos by projecting them onto buildings all over the world was brilliant.

In Conclusion

Despite being one of the most talented artists of our generation, Kanye West is one of the most vilified entertainers of our time, but I ask why? It has to be deeper than just him being the the "cocky rapper".

Personally, I don't think that people hate Kanye West, the person, they just hate something which he represents. Maybe he represents parts of the person which they are too afraid to be, maybe he represents dreams they're afraid to chase, truth they're afraid to accept, confidence they're afraid to have and risks they're afraid to take.

Kanye's no angel, but he's far from the devil that he's often made out to be, but if people were smart, they'd sit back and learn from him.

Monday, June 10, 2013

2 7 Things I Learned From The Godfather

The classic 1972 film, The Godfather, is one of my favorite movies of all time. Aside from the great story and remarkable characters, one of the things which makes me such a huge fan of this movie is the abundance of life lessons and wisdom found in it. The movie is so inspirational for me that I felt the need to share some of the lessons that I learned from it such as...

Lesson 1- Stay focused on your business

One of the most brilliant scenes of the movie is when Michael Corleone goes to Vegas to meet with mafiosi Moe Greene, to get him to sell him his casino to the Corleone family. But when Michael arrives in Vegas for the meeting his brother Fredo has a party waiting for him along with music, food and his choice of women. But Michael sternly tells him, "Get rid of them... I'm here on business." That type of focus Michael had on his business goals rather than personal indulgences always stood out to me. 

As you can see, Michael is all business.

Lesson 2- Keep your composure

The oldest son of the Corleone family. Sonny, was known to be a hothead. He could fly off of the handle at a moment's notice, like when he broke the reporter's camera at his sister's wedding...

Or when he beat up his sister's abusive husband, Carlo.

... OK, that one was understandable. But Sonny's uncontrolled rage would inevitably be his downfall, why? Because it made him predictable. As fate would have it, Sonny was killed in an ambush by henchmen of a rival mafia family as he angrily left his family compound without bodyguards to get retaliation on Carlo for beating his sister again.

Lesson 3- You could act like a man!

...Or you could act like a woman (for the ladies).

One of the more humorous scenes of the Godfather is the one in which the Corleone family protege, Sinatra-esque singer, Johnny Fontane comes to Vito Corleone talking about his problems in the entertainment business. Fontane tells the Don that his career is in a slump and he needs a role in an upcoming film to get back on track, but a movie producer named Jack Woltz won't hire him. Fontane, then starts to sulk and practically cries to the Don about the situation. Don Corleone furiously gets up, slaps him and demands that he "Act like a man!" 

The lesson in this is that anyone can complain and whine about their problems, but it takes guts to just and handle it like an adult. Johnny Fontane learned the hard way, with a good ol' slap from the Don.

Lesson 4- Don't take sides against the family

Family loyalty is one of the recurring themes of The Godfather. Yet one of the most iconic and ominous scenes of the film occurs when new Corleone family head, Michael speaks sternly with Vegas head honcho Moe Greene about buying his casino. Greene basically is against selling the casino and mocks the power of not only Michael, but of the Corleone family as a whole.

This prompts Michael to put Moe Greene in his place with a calm, yet threatening, chilling comment: 
"I leave for New York tomorrow, think about a price."

After Greene leaves angrily, Michael's brother, the weak-minded Fredo Corleone scolds him for the way that he talked to Moe Greene. Michael then warns Fredo about something that would inevitably be his downfall...

This lesson is simple, family comes first.

Lesson 5- "Don't ever let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking..."

In addition to Sonny Corleone's inability to contain his anger, he also was bad at holding his tongue. He often said what he felt without regard for whether or not it was a appropriate time to do so.

A prime example of is when Vito Corleone met with rival mob boss, Sollozzo, who was trying to gain money  and protection from the Corleones for his investment in the heroin business. Yet, seeing how risky the business of narcotics is, Corleone refuses.   

Yet, Sonny, who, unlike his father, was in favor of the Corleones investing in the narcotic business expresses interest in Sollozo's plan. His carelessness angers his father:

 This Sonny's slip of the tongue proves to be a huge mistake. In this small comment, Sollozzo saw a weakness in the Corleone family and saw that Sonny and his father were divided on the issue of narcotics and decided to exploit that weakness.

Since Sonny is the Corleone family underboss, which makes him his father's heir, Sollozzo arranges a hit on Vito.

The lesson in all of this is to be very mindful of what you say to people outside of your inner circle... and when you're in doubt, just shut up

Lesson 6- Be observant

In the world of the Corleone family, families rise to the top of the food chain through power, organization and strategy. But one of the things which kept families like the Corleones at the top is being observant. In some cases, how observant a person is can be a matter of life and death. Like in the meeting after Sonny's death where Vito Corleone declares a truce amongst the five families, and he discovers that Don Barzini, a head of a rival family is one of the main sources of a great deal of the hostility toward the Corleone family.

Just by listening to the way in which people talked, Vito Corleone was able to decipher power relationships amongst the families as well as any hostility toward him. This led him to gain insight on the power dynamics of the families... which inevitably led to his son Michael ordering hits on all of them.

But, murders and violence aside... As The Godfather has showed, it pays off to be observant; keeping your eyes and ears open solves a lot of life's problems.

Lesson 7- Relationships mean a lot

One of the main lessons which I got from The Godfather is that relationships go a long way. Most of the Corleone family's power was built upon their relationships.

Look at Johnny Fontane, he was washed up and wimpy in the beginning of the movie, thanks to his relationship with the Corleones, he was back on top towards the end.

Or you can look at the way in which Carlo exploited his relationship with the Corleones through his marriage to Vito Corleone's daughter Connie.

If the Godfather has showed us anything it's that who let into our inner circle, who we make friends with, who we help and who we make enemies with can play a huge role on our lives.

So in conclusion...

There's nothing quite like a movie that can make you really think, and that's part of the reason why The Godfather is a classic which has stood the test of time. It's not just a gangster flick, it's movie about family, power and change. It offers much more than just good acting and memorable characters, it offers life lessons... and that's an offer you can't refuse.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2 Study the Greats, Become Greater

"Study the greats and become greater." -Michael Jackson
Anyone who knows me well knows that I consider myself to be a bit of an impressionist. Since elementary school, I'd perform impressions of my friends, teachers, family members and even celebrities.

Now I'm not saying that I'm the next Robin Williams or anything, but this skill has always fascinated many people.

How I developed this was through years of studying people. I watch what they say, how they say it, their distinctive body language, how they walk, how they laugh, etc.

Yet, as I grew older, I learned to study much more than people's body language and their idiosyncrasies. Whenever I looked up to someone or admire a quality about them, I started to learn about their life, what they went through, how they handled it and what qualities made them so successful at their craft.

Then, I'd emulate the qualities which made those people successful and apply them toward my life. I'd also study their techniques and their style. 

For example, when I decided to try my hand at acting last year in a college play, without even realizing it, I'd sometimes find myself trying to emulate the acting styles of successful actors like Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando.

When I performed in a comedic musical the next semester, I realized that a great deal of my comedic style was based off of things which I picked up from comedians Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin.

When I hosted talent show on campus, my performace as a host was largely based on the style of late night talk show hosts, Johnny Carson and Conan O'Brien, as well as that of comedian Martin Lawrence when he hosted Def Comedy Jam in the early 90s. 

Even the way that I write is based upon the the works of countless different journalists and authors which I've read throughout my life. 

The point is that in studying great people, there's nothing wrong with emulating certain things which made them great. Of course, you don't want to be an imitation of other people or a plagiarizer, but you can use the styles of other people as a template for developing your own style. 

Look no further than Michael Jackson. We all know he's the "King of Pop" and one of, if not THE greatest musical artist to ever live.

But what few people realize is that Michael was also a student of great entertainers. Everything which made Michael Jackson distinctive was largely influenced by others.

The way that he danced was influenced by entertainers such a Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway and James Brown. Even his signature dance move "The Moonwalk" was a dance that dancers were doing since the days of 1940s vaudeville performances.

Just watch a little bit of this video to see what I mean:  

Even things such as his vocal style and his ad libs were based off of other people. His "vocal hiccup" style of singing was used by artists such as Elvis Presley and Diana Ross.  

His "chamone" (slang for "come on") ad lib, heard in songs like "Bad", was borrowed from Staples Singers vocalist, Mavis Staples.

What we have to realize is that emulating other people a part of life. As babies, we learn to walk and talk largely from watching and listening to the people around us. 

Hell, even the whole basis of this post is based off of things I read in Austin Kleon's book, "Steal Like an Artist"... 

...which I highly recommend, by the way.

So get out and learn from the people you admire, understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and also learn to understand what makes you different from them.

That way, we too can become great.

"I'm all about studying people... And I if find any great man, black or white, I'm gonna study him, learn about him, so he can't be great to me anymore." -Tupac Shakur

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

0 White Kid, Black Culture

Marvin's Note: I met Aaron at Edinboro University, where we were both journalism students. One of the things that struck me about Aaron was his intense love for hip-hop music. I mean, Aaron's the type of guy who could sit and discuss every track of every album of Biggie and 2Pac's career with you for hours. Yet, Aaron's interest in cultures which many people believe to be foreign to him has had its pros and cons throughout the years, here's his story...
By: Aaron McKrell
I consider myself a pretty cultured person, especially for a white kid who grew up in an affluent suburb of Erie, Pa. Particularly, I am familiar with black culture. Growing up, my father took my brother and I with him to high school football games which he would cover as a sports medicine physician.

It was during these cold Friday nights that I became acclimated with black culture, from the dress to the style to the poor living conditions of many residents of Erie's East side.

Those experiences, as well as the fact that I have several adopted black cousins, many black friends, and an obsession with hip hop music and culture, have made me very familiar with black culture. In truth, I feel just as comfortable around my black friends as I do lounging in my house in the suburbs, if not more. However, when I stepped into a gym at a local YMCA last week, I felt strangely uncomfortable.

Walking into the gym, I quickly noticed I was the only white guy in the place. That wasn't an issue; when I'm with my friends I am often the only white guy in the room. Besides, I believe that people are people, so I thought nothing of it and started shooting around. Eventually, I recognized one of the kids shooting on the opposite end of the court as a member of the Strong Vincent basketball team, one that I had interviewed when covering a high school playoff game for the local newspaper. I walked toward him and asked if he remembered me.

"I think I would remember a 6'2, 200-something white dude," he said. I reminded him who I was and he greeted me enthusiastically, bouncing over to me and dapping me up. I caught up with him for a moment and then went back to shooting.

After warming up for a bit, I asked the guys if they wanted to get a game going. Unfortunately, other than the kid I had interviewed, no one seemed interested in talking to me and I was met with a few shrugs of indifference.

I shot around a little longer and then asked again. I was met with pretty much the same response. The guys had apparently been at the gym all day and were resting against the wall, chatting about school and basketball. I tried to join in, purely out of interest in the hoops they were talking.

My interest was met with more indifference.

I tried to carry the conversation, but the warmest response I got was a half-smile. Soon after, when I realized there was going to be no pickup game, I went downstairs to use the elliptical.

I knew what had happened. The guys thought I was some white dude trying to impress them by talking hoops. I've seen it before. As a matter of fact, it's something some of my black friends laugh about; white people trying to impress them in an awkward manner. Here's the problem: I wasn't trying to impress anybody. In reality, all I wanted to do was chat about hoops and play a few pickup games. But the guys
saw me as an outsider. 

This has happened to me before; a few months back I was filling up my tank at a gas station and heard the beat to Kendrick Lamar's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" coming from a neighboring car, except it wasn't Kendrick rapping, it was some pop singer crooning.

 I asked the lady in the car who it was on the song, and she just responded by simply saying "okay", which basically meant "whatever", as she most likely assumed i was trying to impress her or force a

I can't be mad at that lady, or the guys in the gym. White people trying to impress black people is something that I've seen happen many times, and I'm sure that would make anyone jaded. For me though, I felt a little hurt, because my interest was genuine and I was viewed as just another white dude trying to impress the black guys.

The old saying goes, don't complain unless you can offer a solution, so here it is: keep an open mind and be yourself.
As difficult as it is for people to fight their preconceived notions of other cultures, it can be done. If you're the only white guy in a room full of black guys, don't try to impress them based on a movie you saw or song you heard.

Likewise, If you see a guy walking into the gym, don't assume he acts a certain way because of the color of his skin. And it's not just a white-black thing; it applies to all ethnicities and cultures.

Be yourself, and give people a chance to be who they are. If that happens, maybe I'll be able to walk into the gym and talk with some kids from Strong Vincent without any preconceived notions tensing the air.

And in turn, if that conversation can happen, we can open up the floor to a whole lot more.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

2 Why they Sag

"I just don't understand why they wear their pants like that."

Well, that's the point.

Many people don't understand it, they complain about it, they don't like the way it looks, and that's a big part of the reason why many young people are going to keep wearing their pants like that.

It seems as if these days, sagging pants has become one of the most controversial issues in America. There has been discussion about the issue of people sagging their pants and there has even been laws enacted in some cities against the common practice.

Many people talk about the origins of sagging. 

"It started in the prisons, people sagged their pants to show that they were 'available'" , they'll say.

Others say,"The rappers made it popular."

But those theories don't touch on the 'why' of pants sagging. 

The reason why many young people sag their pants goes much further than a fad. It is rooted in cultural rebellion and protest.

Similar to the way in which many people wore their hair long in the late 1960s-early 1970s as a form of cultural rebelliousness, popularized in the anti-war/counter-culture movement.
"Get a job, you long-haired hippy freaks!"
They both did get jobs, I hear they went into politics...

It's similar to the "zoot suit" controversy of the 1940s in which oversized, flamboyant suits were popularized in the African-American, Latino and Italian communities as a form of rebelliousness. They were even by some to be deemed to be unpatriotic because their suits "wasted materials that should be put toward the war effort".

Sagging pants is just another middle finger to society and to what is deemed as being "acceptable". It's a subtle, unspoken form of rebellion from a largely misunderstood, miseducated, unheard generation basically saying, "So what if who I am and the way I wear my pants makes you uncomfortable, the conditions of society makes me uncomfortable."

That's the root of it all, and I don't think necessarily everyone who sags their pants thinks this, but this is what it is rooted in.

It's a gesture popularized by (but not restricted to) youth of the inner city, a place which rapper Tupac Shakur once referred to as the "outer city" because he felt that the people who lived there were largely left out many of the things which society has to offer.

Now I know some people may think, "Yeah, but the sagging pants just looks stupid,"

But what we also have to understand is that this also reflects a lack of community leadership because cultural rebellious energy, which is a big part of pants sagging, is usually channeled and molded into more productive, organized use by leaders and social movements. 

However, when leaders don't exist and social movements don't channel this rebellious energy, as well as to make productive use of it, that's where we get forms of rebellion like pants sagging.

"Yeah well, I still think its stupid.", some might say.

Yeah well, maybe it's stupid to that people but so much energy into criticizing everything that the youth does but do hardly anything to try to understand them, mentor them and help them grow.

Or maybe it's stupid that out of all of the things going on with America's inner city youth, including the closing of public schools, lack of jobs, crime, incarceration and police brutality, the main thing which outrages people and forces them into action is the way that they wear their pants. 

So who really looks stupid? 

I'm not saying that young people should sag their pants, but I understand why they do it.

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