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Category Archives: Op/Ed

Back On Track

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We apologize for being M.I.A. the past month. Sometimes life gets in the way, a circumstance to which I’m sure many people can relate. ūüôā With Bennie moving ever closer to delivery, we’ve had to shift our focus and rearrange a few things. This created the need for a bit of a hiatus. Nevertheless, TLM is back on track to push forward with music reviews and articles that showcase some of the best new and established artists and bands you’ll want to check out (or avoid, as the case may be ;-)). In any case, we are excited for what lies ahead! ūüėÄ

DSC01928It’s like losing track of time after reading a few good books. ūüėČ

The Pivot Point

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This is a follow-up to my previous article: The Price.

Living in Los Angeles, there are probably very few people who haven’t at some point in their lives dreamed of being famous.¬† You know… face plastered on billboards all over town or your contagious song on the radio.¬† I’ve been fortunate to experience many extraordinary things over the years… two albums (do NOT ask me the names, I will NOT tell you), movies (VH1, but hey it still counts ), and TV commercials (Coca-Cola, KFC, McDonalds… FYI jingles make a TON of money), among others.¬† For the most part, I’ve always been two steps shy of the spotlight. At any moment I could easily have stepped into the hot glaring lights of Who’s Whoville. Ran through the Hollywood scene with reckless abandon.¬† Schmooze at houses with bathrooms bigger than my backyard.¬† But with all of the things that I’ve seen, read or personally experienced, I’ve come to the conclusion that fame was the last thing I ever wanted.

I told this story a couple of years ago about a very well-known, highly respected (and still active) industry exec who told me, “Riis! I will make you a star!¬† We’ll make your album and feature it in all of the movies I work on and you’ll guest spot on every single TV show I supervise.¬† Just sign on the dotted line…

I never did.

I knew everything he said was probably true.¬† But as I mentioned, the cost for me was far more than I was willing to pay. I’ve seen what fame & celebrity has done to people.¬† People I know personally.¬† There’s absolutely no privacy.¬† Increased instability for my kids who already have enough to contend with just trying to be kids. The constant travelling and being pulled in several directions at once. I realized back then that in all of my pursuing, I wasn’t chasing a desire to be famous, but simply… a desire to be liked.¬† I wanted to feel special.¬† I wanted people to look at me with the awe that comes with seeing a child prodigy, getting a book signed by their favorite author or scoring backstage passes to a sold out show.¬† I wanted to feel wanted.

But you know what you often get with fame? You get a growing population who feels it is there right and obligation to criticize you… judge you… pick you apart for every little thing you do or don’t do… you become the subject of asinine headlines like “Riis addicted to Starbucks” or “Riis’ Marriage On The Brink Of Failure! Drinks Red Bull To Calm Frayed Nerves!”¬† And then you realize that the affirmation is fleeting.¬† This industry is fickle.¬† Jealousy overshadows your accomplishments.¬† People have unrealistic expectations of how you should act and who you should be.¬† Close relationships begin to fall apart because you just don’t have the time to invest in them like you should.

I’m not saying this is what fame looks like for everyone, but when he placed that contract in front of me and I looked at my future… this is what I saw.¬† And I was thankful that in a sense, at that moment I was at the pivot point… a chance to rewind.¬† I could choose now to trade that successful but empty future for a different one.¬† The one I have now.

When I take stock of all that I have, I recognize that it’s everything I ever truly wanted.¬† I’m not just liked, I am loved… by my wife, my kids, my family and close friends.¬† My children look at me with awe and think that I know the answer to everything.¬† I’m recognized for my skills and talents at work, with colleagues and fellow artists.¬† My wife wants and affirms me everyday.¬† And you know… if I never win a Grammy or an Oscar, I’ve acquired something more priceless… fulfillment.

The Price

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Someone complimented me on my music the other day. After saying thank you, they proceeded to ask me why I haven’t “tried to get a record deal??” and blah blah blah. I’ve heard that question so many times now that I’ve developed the pat answer of, “because my wife and kids are worth more than any fame or fortune I’d have sacrificed them to obtain”.

Okay, I’m not trying to sound all doomsday. So what does that mean exactly?

Well, Day 150 - 05-29-2012I’ve had many occasions to “get a record deal” (which doesn’t mean what it used to). That isn’t meant to sound boastful. I just want you to know that it hasn’t been due to lack of opportunity. But once I started a family, they became my priority. It was my choice to do so. And no amount of money or notoriety was worth the very real possibility of giving them up. Which is what I was being asked to do in nearly every single circumstance.

See, I already knew what it’s like to spend countless hours in the studio. I’d paid my dues as an artist performing multiple shows a day, multiple days a week. So while it’s true that I would have done anything for my wife and kids, I had to draw the line at depriving them of a husband and father who loves them.

My decision was based on my personal experience and firsthand knowledge that the music industry (and the entertainment industry as a whole) is not very nice. The industry machine and the people who operate it don’t really care about you. Labels, publishers and some producers only care about how you will benefit them first and yourself second, if at all. Most will be expected to act selfishly, and you could very well be asked at some point in your career to compromise everything you believe.

I’m not saying this is the case for everyone. And I would never discourage anyone from pursuing their dreams. It’s just that with my circumstances, for me it was very clear what the end of the road looked like had I chosen differently. I have acquaintances who are both lonely and full of regret. I have other friends who are very fulfilled in their industry careers. It wasn’t until¬†years later that they become acutely aware of the cost of ¬†the road they chose.¬†I just implore you to make an informed decision about these kinds of things. Because the price you pay isn’t always obvious.

I Didn’t Get The Sports Gene

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In many respects, I am a stereotypical man and I do what many typical men do… no, not THAT I mean like fix and build things. (I made this! )¬† However, there is one particular area where I am very different from many of my male friends: Sports.¬† Yep, baseball, football, hockey… You can keep ’em.

This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy playing sports. Prior to a car accident at age 12, I had a very promising career on the school track team.¬† Yeah, don’t hate on the runners. Some of the best runners I knew became football players. Others became managers at Footlocker. But that’s another story. To this day, I love to work out and stay physically fit (P90X!).¬† And sure, I love a good pick up game of basketball with my sons, or playing street football with the neighborhood kids (who apparently don’t know the meaning of “TAG” football). But anything beyond that and my attention fades to nothing. Really.¬† I mean, I don’t even watch professional sports unless it’s the NBA Finals¬†or occasionally the Super Bowl, and then mostly to see the commercials (which are far more entertaining to me). I’m not glued to the big screen HDTV for Monday Night Football surrounded by my buddies with beer, chips and hot dogs. I’ve never even participated in any Fantasy Sports leagues.¬† Call me crazy, but there’s no excitement in that for me.

I’m not the guy who’s so consumed with which player is being traded to what team that I can’t focus at work. I’m not the husband who can’t be approached while the game is on, and gets grouchy when my team loses.¬† Guys at work will come in the next day and spend hours discussing last nights game and arguing over bad calls and inflated stats.¬† Me?¬† I could care less. Who got injured? Some team is 12-0? I guess I never got that gene.

It was replaced by the MUSIC gene. Ask me who won the Grammy for Best New Artist back in 2004 and I can run off a list of the songs from their album.¬† I could talk for hours about the rise of Country Pop and the degrading of R&B production quality. I could give you a year-by-year history of Hip Hop and provide details of pioneers like the Sugar Hill Gang, Just Ice and Grand Master Flash, or innovators like ATCQ or the Fu Schnickens, as well as contemporaries like Drake, Rick Ross and T.I.¬† I can tell you what High School Josh Groban attended, or about the girl who originally recorded and released “Don’t Cha” before the Pussycat Dolls (trust me, it was NO BUENO).

I guess the parts of my mind that were originally reserved to care about sports were usurped by the arts, musicality and the pursuit of sonic nirvana.¬† As a writer, producer, arranger, artist and musician, it infiltrates every part of my life.¬† I guess I got it from my parents who used to tour Chicago and the surrounding areas, traveling with an ensemble vocal group with my uncle who played the piano.¬† And it’s been passed on… my wife sings and plays the guitar.¬† My oldest son is an actor, singer and dancer. And my middle son is already an exceptional writer at the age of 16.

So while you’re watching the Super Bowl, remember me and people like me who compose the music for the broadcast introduction, replay transitions and commercial jingles that have become just as much a part of American culture as apple pie.

Marketing Ignorance

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First let me say that I’m a fan of hip hop. I mean, my interaction goes way back to the days of, well… never mind, I don’t want to date myself. ūüėČ ¬†In spite of the depth of my affections for this genre however, I simple¬†can not¬†tolerate someone advocating ignorance and trying to call it art! ¬†I believe there has to be more than a modicum of intelligence in all art, whether it be painting, music, theater or dance.

What do I mean by this? Well, I was listening to a rapper (who shall remain mercifully¬†unnamed)¬†spouting off what he considered to be a battle rap which made absolutely no sense.¬† He used words out of context simply because… wait for it… ¬†they rhymed! ¬†Example:¬† “Back up quick before I cap ya dome/beatin’ freakniks with wheat sticks like a motor home…”¬† I’m sorry… what?!? o_O

Then you have rap crews with names that have no real meaning other than the people in the group thinking it must be good because it’s different.¬† This one crew is called “Gangsta Island” and their coming out with an album called “Gangsta Psalms”¬† I mean, come on… Gangsta Psalms?!?!

And then there’s this one guy I know who titled his album, MISCELLANEOUS because he says he’s mysterious and unique.¬† I’m like… “Bro, have you looked up the definition of Miscellaneous¬†lately??” Now I know all hip hop artists are not ignorant, but I wonder if I should even say something to these people.¬†The one time I tried to reason with a guy, he told me I just couldn’t understand his “vibe”¬† I was like… “Look, I gotta be honest… your vibe is sad… as a matter of fact, there is no vibe, it’s just sad all by itself.”¬† Maybe that’s a little harsh, but for someone like me who considers music and poetry to be an art form, these people really bring shame to the entire industry.

Anyway, here’s the soapbox back in case someone was looking for it.

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Lyrical Doubletake

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I listen to a lot of music. I mean… A LOT. A 1TB iPod (a Terabyte is one thousand gigabytes or one million megabytes, if they made them that large… hint hint Apple) wouldn’t be able to contain my vast library of curious, crazy, craptastic and compelling music. From French rapper Akhenaton (@AkhenatonIAM) to CCM and pop artist Amy Grant (@amygrant) to chiptune indie-rock band Anamanaguchi (@anamanaguchi). It would take me nearly 2 weeks straight to listen to the A section alone.

That being said, I’m sad that a lot of new music to me isn’t even real music. I mean, they are a collection of notes and sounds. But they have no real lyrical content. No real melodic structure. Just cookie cutter, pop culture references set to music and served to the masses through commercials, movie soundtracks and lame radio “I caught you sleepin’ wit my (wo)man!” dedications.

Every now and then, I’ll go back and listen to an “oldie”. You know, back during the time when it wasn’t about who produced your album or if you won a Grammy (yeah, way WAY back), but about musicianship, talent, who wrote the song and why.¬† At least, that was my theory.¬† But this theory was shot to pieces today while I was listening to a few throwback songs and realized that the lyrics to one of my favorites was… how should I say… disturbing?

The Beatles “Run For Your Life”

Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or I won’t know where I am

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end, little girl

Wait, come again?? They’re basically telling this woman that “I’m so jealous, that I would kill you before I’d let you be with another man!” The rest of the song continues the theme of warning her about his intent to kill her. Yeah, that’s some hit material right there. I mean, I know that things like that happen, but why are songs like this still so popular?

I’ve noticed that more than a few of today’s artists have capitalized on the disgruntled love interest theme. At any given hour I can turn on the radio (wait, do people still do that?) or browse YouTube and hear a few dozen songs about getting caught cheating, lying about cheating, being hurt by someone who cheated, making money by being selfish, relationships built on being selfish, money being the primary focus of life, sex being the primary goal of relationships, etc, etc. Well… you get my point.

It makes me wonder if society should hold artists to a higher standard for the content of their songs, or is it simply that these songs accurately reflect what most people are thinking, but just are afraid to say. I would hope it’s the former.

I Hate Categories

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Society has an obsession with categorizing the world. We categorize people: you’re an asian, tall, old, gay, rich, southern, democrat and a nerd. We categorize film: it’s a drama, comedy, film noir, oldies, classic, talkie, sci-fi, animated blockbuster. And we categorize music: she’s a singer/songwriter, alt-rock, pop, death-metal, conscious hip-hop, trance, dancehall queen. I hate categories. Especially when it comes to music…

I find it interesting that rappers like Q-Tip, Rakim, and KRS-One (yeah, I’m a bit old school), who are/were all admittedly Muslim or simply followers of Islam, were considered mainstream, not categorized as religious artists and therefore pigeon-holed into a niche market. Whereas you have people like Trip Lee, Andy Mineo,¬†KJ-52, FLAME, and Ackdavis who, because they are “Christian” rappers (as opposed to rappers who are Christian), get lumped into the “also ran” hip hop bin at the record store (again with the old school references). I’m not sure what it is that distinguishes the two – other than the obvious underlying beliefs – from being considered part of the same industry. But apparently, not all Hip Hop is Hip Hop. Day 294 - 10-20-2012

One of the most skilled rappers I’ve ever heard is this guy named shai linne (spelled with lowercase purposely). His talent IMO surpasses most rappers out today. The key difference? His music is Christian Hip Hop. Now before you go all, “uh oh, more religious talk” on me, just hear me out. I’m setting the foundation to make a point that’s universal.

Christian Hip Hop in the past has been plagued like most other Christian music as being woefully behind the times. Quality production usually lagged by a decade or more. These artists were barely escaping the late 80’s when 2000 came and went. It was even worse for Christian Hip Hop. Some of these folks were laughable at best. If their lyrics weren’t completely cheesy and devoid of real theology, their music sounded like it was played with a wooden spoon and a sauce pan.

Fast forward to the late 00’s and music production took a giant leap forward as far as the creative process for the general consumer. This caused ProTools and Logic Pro to effectively move out of the confines of a conventional studio and into the garage or even the bedroom. This meant that up-and-coming singer/songwriters and producers could hone their skills without paying high fees for studio time or needing to commute to professional locations. This had a significant impact on both the secular and religious music industries. More time for getting over the learning curve. More time for experimentation. More time for musical expansion and genre expression.

See, I’m not a Christian singer/rapper/other label. I consider myself an artist who’s also Christian. It should be obvious to anyone who encounters me what I believe simply by the way I choose to live my life. But when it comes to music, I’m being forced into a box. One side says, “if you’re a Christian then you can’t sing/rap about love and relationships!” The other side says, “if you want to be considered a mainstream artist, you can’t include any religious references!” The absurdity of it all is frustrating. My goal with my music is to simply offer the world something I created in hopes that it will be either something you relate to, something that encourages you, or simply something that entertains you. It’s unfortunate that there exists an unspoken rule among some that my life as a Christian can not publicly include practical expressions of love, disappointment, struggle and fun.

It’s almost as if releasing a song commercially ties you to that genre for the duration of your career. Anything outside of that is considered “getting away from your roots”.¬† That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. I’m simply an artist and my creations may change as often as my moods depending on what I’m going through at the moment. Pop, R&B, Hip Hop, Country… if I write a song and that’s the feel of it, then so be it.

I just want to live my life outside of categorization.

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