Dave Tompkins is good. Really good. It’s worrying that the ability to edit blog posts and online content to your heart’s content could make writers complacent. The fear of editorial rejections and the finality of submitting to print is a fair motivator to improve your written word. Current hip-hop writing isn’t up to scratch – it’s all top 10s in bite size controversy-heavy morsels or a link-heavy sentence above a Sendspace link. I need more.
I haven’t peeped the new Vibe format, but using their site as a barometer, I imagine the “black Rolling Stone” elements of the magazine’s heyday have vanished – those lengthy features on white hillbilly gangbangers, or hefty prison visit chats. Dave Tompkins’s work isn’t some SEO-friendly nugget of facts and release dates. He’s been eclipsing other writers with splattergun bullets of facts, history and a real reverence for hip-hop culture for years now, somehow contextualising it, bringing together the sci-fi and street level in those final few paragraphs in Rap Pages, URB and Big Daddy. His Paul C article is a pinnacle piece.
You understand then, why the notion of Tompkins writing a book on the history of the vocoder created a buzz to match that of the speech synthesising subject matter. Chances are you don’t write like Dave. I suck by comparison, but I don’t let it get me down any more. Dave’s 1994 review of the debut Artifacts LP for Rap Pages opens with, “Too often unsung and un-MCeed are the masters of markers and aerosol-ballers with the gall.”
My own, more sycophantic review of the same album (neatly sidestepping the 5 dull tracks on it), my first for SpineMagazine back in early 2000 is a leaden affair, opening with “‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ is one of those rare LP’s where everything is tight- the lyrics, the production and even the cover design.” Yeah, go Gary. Draw ’em in on the first sentence. Jesus. That’s why Dave Tompkins writes incredible books like ‘How to Wreck a Nice Beach’ (“How to recognise speech” misheard via the vocoder) while I jot down notes about sneakers. We know our places.
While I’d been holding out for the rumoured Tuff Crew book he was reportedly penning, ‘How to Wreck…’ delivers. It’s as visually arresting as it is linguistically lavish – old flyers, notes, military pamphlets, customised cassettes, machinery, ads and specially penned portraits of key personnel in the instrument’s lifespan. A scholar like the author could’ve left it wilfully clinical – nothing but words and the occasional diagram, and it would’ve worked somehow. Yet this is a hardback trove of information, written with the man’s usual hyper-factual flair as the warfare and political roots give way to overrated Brit-rockers, soul music filtered, Cylons and the Auto-Tune plague. Then there’s the fainting, the poisoning and the electrocutions. These things can make a man light-headed. Oh, and you’ll develop a new respect for Donnie Wahlberg.
As one who got giddy not at Kurt’s guitar but by local boy Mr. Troutman’s robo-gear in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, this has made my year. I’m not flicking pages to reinforce what’s already filed in the cranium – I’m reading to be enlightened, and Dave Tompkins is an educator who lets the machine do the talking this time around, imbuing it with a real humanity. One of the best music-related books in a long, long time. Speaking of Spine – check the homie Zaid’s review here.
Check Dave Tompkins’s 1995 graffiti-themed editorial from URB below. A work-of-art in itself. Taken from the excellent ‘Press Rewind If I Haven’t…’ blog.
Plus Dave taught me that the 1979 film ‘Zoo zéro’ combines Klaus Kinski with a vocoder.
Having missed out on missing the increasingly prolific Danny Trejo (I’ve been a fan since he was fighting in ‘Runaway Train’ and getting offed in ‘The Hidden’ ) by a few seconds in Los Angeles last week, and blown away as I was by the signed machete Estevan Oriol had in his office, I’ve been following the controversies leading up to the new ‘Machete’ movie – Trejo is that dude. If you’ve read Eddie Bunker’s ‘Mr. Blue’ you know he’s no joke. Now Robert Rodriguez has announced he’s making a live-action version of Frank Frazetta’s ‘Fire And Ice’ alongside Ralph Bakshi. Serious news – Robert generally seems to deliver on his announcements, and this could be the ultimate Frank tribute.
Props to FirehouseSoundDK for upping some (too) brief footage of the great Conroy Smith, don of the digital age, performing ‘Dangerous’ at Sting ’88 a week or so ago. It’s been the soundtrack to this warm weekend. Apparently he’s currently incarcerated on drug charges. Stay up, Conroy.