Friday, December 30, 2005

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Greatest Hip Hop Albums of MY Time

MTV recently unveiled its list of "Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time," and while the list has merit to some extent, I was disappointed that a lot of the albums I consider great didn't even make the cut. Aside from Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy's inclusions, I could have listed ten other albums that have a greater claim to Great Hip Hop Album.

And then I realized I have my own blog. So I am going to run down ten albums that I think represent the best hip hop has to offer. These are the ten hip hop albums that have had the greatest impact on my
personal musical tastes:

10.) How Ya Like Me Now? -- Kool Moe Dee

It may only be remembered for its title track and "Wild Wild West," but this was a landmark in my appreciation of hip hop. It was the first rap record (okay, it was a cassette) that I ever heard, and I immediately went out and got a pair of British Knights!

L.L. might have gone on to have the longer mainstream career (and honestly, I'm glad I never had to see Moe Dee star in S.W.A.T. and Deep Blue Sea), but I was always firmly in Moe's corner. Besides, I got Uncle L further down the list with a much better album than Bigger and Deffer.

.) Mama Said Knock You Out -- L.L. Cool J
I didn't totally leave L.L. off the list. I was in eigth grade when Mama Said... came out, and I still can't think of a song to ride in a Jeep to better than "The Boomin' System." I think most people remember the title track and his electric "MTV Unplugged" performance.

When looking back at L's career, people will invariably place Radio or Bigger... at the top of their lists, and deservedly so. But for me, this is the record that defines his career. Plus it was the first hip hop album I ever bought on CD. Though, I still think L.L.'s acting career is something less than desirable.

8.) Black on Both Sides -- Mos Def
Speaking of rappers-cum-thespians:

I had a friend who was all about Blackstar; and as great as that first record was, Mos' solo debut was better.

The Mighty Mos Def's
Blackstar collabos with Talib Kweli notwithstanding, Black on Both Sides is a record that only gets better with each listen. Plus, this record has one of my favorite hip hop songs of all time: "Mathematics:"

Power-liftin powerless up, out of this, towerin inferno
My ink so hot it burn through the journal
I'm blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles
like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing
7.) Self: Volume One -- Mountain Brothers
I have to admit that I'm a little biased when it comes to these three brothers from Philly. But it was influential in my life because it was the first legitimate hip hop record from real Asian American MCs. From Peril-L's flow to Styles' humor to Chops' beats, this was a record that bled hip hop.

Unfortunately, a lot of people too easily dismiss Asian American hip hop as novelty acts (see Jin's rise and flameout), and the MBs never got their due before they went their seperate ways. Still, they took it to the Next Level when they rocked ODU back in '99!!

6.) Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop
-- Boogie Down Productions
I had a hard time deciding which BDP album to represent. Criminal Minded is a hip hop classic. By All Means Necessary has the definitive BDP track "My Philosophy." And I feel that Edutainment was their strongest album top to bottom (and the Kwame Toure interludes on "Ya Strugglin" made quite an impression on me at the time).

Ghetto Music was KRS-One's rawest exploration of hip hop to date. The beats are relentless, and classic tracks just come one after another ("Jack of Spades," "You Must Learn," "Bo! Bo! Bo!") and "Breath Control" is a seminal beat box classic.

Like Water for Chocolate -- Common
Common has gotten a lot of press and critical acclaim with the release of his latest album Be. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that his previous album, Electric Circus, was a commercial flop (even though I thought it was a sonically daring record). The other reason is because of it-producer and fellow Chi-town native Kanye West's involvement in the production. And even though Be is a really good album, it suffers from bearing too much of Ye's influence. While that's not a bad thing per se, it still doesn't represent Common as much as 2000's triumphant Like Water for Chocolate.

Musically and lyrically, this is Common's most enduring album. From the opening vocals by Miss Vinia Mojica on "Time Travelin" to the Mos Def collabo "The Questions" to the rawness of "Thelonious" and the heartache of "A Song for Assata" Chocolate demonstrated that Common's maturity as a lyricist and as an artist didn't peak with One Day it'll All Make Sense (another masterpiece of an album). Also, "The Light" is quite possibly the best hip hop ballad of all time (though the Roots' "You Got Me" might have claim to that title.)

4.) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill -- Lauryn Hill
Some people might dismiss this as not really being a "hip hop" record. I think they're wrong. Just because Lauryn sings on Miseducation as much as she raps, it doesn't mean the album is any less relevant as a watershed moment in hip hop history. Her multiple Grammy awards paved the way for OutKast's win in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Aside from the album's historical precedence, it's simply a beautifully executed work of art. Completely void of filler, even the album's non-musical interludes/skits are vital and serve the message of the album -- (these skits involve a teacher and his students discussing love -- a lesson that Miss Hill seems to be absent for). And while there is plenty of R&B flavor throughout, tracks like "Lost Ones," "Superstar" and "Everything is Everything" is hip hop at its realest. And even though Lauryn fell off the map after this album's astronomical success,
Miseducation has forever solidified her place as the Queen of hip hop.

3.) The Low End Theory
-- A Tribe Called Quest
This was the first record that showed me hip hop could be something that is as artful as it is fun. Tribe was something different; I knew it the minute I saw the "Check the Rime" video on Yo! MTV Raps. The contrast between Q-Tip and Phife, the jazz beats laid down by Ali Shaheed Mohammad.

Undoubtedly, this was also a great party record. Fifteen years later and "Scenario" is
still a track guaranteed to get any dance floor jumpin'. But it's the album's awareness that impressed me the most. Listening to the Last Poets speak about time underneath the beats of "Excursions," Tip taking a cue from Pablo Neruda's 20 Questions in "What?!" and the funky singing by Miss Vinia Mojica in "Verses from the Abstract" brought gravitas to hip hop. This is a seminal record.

2.) (tie) Illadelph Halflife/Things Fall Apart -- The Roots
I had a difficult time trying to decide which Roots record would ultimately end up on this list. Organix is, by definition, one of the greatest hip hop records ever made. But I felt it was dishonest to place that one on this list because I came to it after I had become a fan of the band.

I decided to include
Illadeplh Halflife because it was the one that opened me -- and most of the world outside Philly -- to this amazing musical entity. That's the difficult thing about the Roots for me: everything they do is good. It's impossible to distinguish because each album has its own quality. For me, Illadelph reinvigorated my love for the music. I had become disillusioned with the way hip hop was being overrun with negativity and gangsta posturing. When the "What They Do" video dropped, it was like a n epiphany! Here was a group bringing musicianship and craft back into the art form.

Things Fall Apart took everything that was building since Organix and Do You Want More to a whole 'nother level. From the opening dialogue between Wesley Snipes' and Denzel Washington's Mo' Better Blues characters, to the discordant beats of both parts of "Table of Contents," the record is a nonstop assualt that, for me, elevated hip hop to a standard unseen since Coltrane was blowin' a sax. And the Grammy-winning single "You Got Me" is the most beautiful hip hop love song ever committed to wax. Period.

1.) Fear of a Black Planet -- Public Enemy

To this day, I have not heard an album -- of any genre -- as politically, sonically and emotionally charged as this hip hop masterpiece. The opening chords of "Contract on the World Love Jam" perfectly set the mood for the rest of the album. The Bomb Squad's production on this album is a testament to how great hip hop could be. It can be truly said that nothing ever sounded like Public Enemy before Public Enemy.
But as great as the beats and samples were on Fear of a Black Planet, this album's greatest strength lied in its charismatic and inspirational frontman: Chuck D.

"Brothers Gonna Work it Out" is both angry and hopeful. "Welcome to the Terrordome" is the soundtrack for anyone who has ever suffered at the boot of opression and racism. "Power to the People" is the most conscious dance record ever recorded. And "Revolutionary Generation" -- a track that celebrated and empowered black women -- was indeed revolutionary at a time when hip hop was becoming increasingly misogynistic.

But the album's greatest triumph comes in the form of a song that was actually released a year earlier. The theme song to Spike Lee's groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing. The inclusion of "Fight the Power" -- truly an anthem for all people in the struggle -- solidified Fear of a Black Planet as something more than just a hip hop record. It was an important record. If anyone was unaware of the cancer of racism, "Fight the Power" was educational. If anyone was disgusted with the inequalies of class and race in America, "Fight the Power" was inspirational. With the release of this track -- quickly followed by the manifesto that was Fear of a Black Planet -- hip hop truly became more than a musical fad. Hip hop became a movement.

Friday, December 16, 2005

My Curious George, Tai Shan

Have I always been fascinated with giant pandas? I know that I have always been attracted to animals -- especially those with round, cuddly and fluffy features. What started it was probably a gift from my boyfriend, a panda plush -- seven years later, now I have more than a whole family in many different sizes :) As I learn about these amazing creatures, and now that I have 24-hour access to be indulged in these pandas, I'm very much in love with them.

Tai Shan who is the star of the National Zoo in D.C. keeps me so busy at work. Ever since he learned to walk, Tai has been spending all his waking moments exploring. Every move he makes -- whether falling asleep or falling on his poofy tush -- I can't help myself wanting to reach out and squeeze this silly cub.

What amazes me about his mommy, Mei Xiang, is how diligent she has been. Many times, panda mothers walk away from their newborns because they don't know what to do with this tiny thing the size of a bar of soap squealing its lungs out -- sadly, the cub has to be taken away, or in the worst case like in the wild, it gets left behind.

Considering that fact, Mei Xiang has been a wonderful mom and sometiems makes me think she's much better and more committed to her cub than some human parents are to their own children. On the other hand, Tian Tian -- Tai's papa -- is yet to have any idea that he has become the father of this incredible cub -- he spends his days eating and sleeping like any other day :)

Right at this moment, Tai Shan is waking from his long nap, playing in his den -- hanging between the platform and the object next to it. He spends a lot of time by himself now, but still cuddles and plays (or wrestles) with his mom too. I am as curious as Tai Shan to see where his adventure will take him tomorrow. I shall wait and see!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

'Stealth' PR not so stealth after all

If you’re going to roll out a stealth propaganda campaign in which you plan on “placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the U.S. government as the source,” is it really wise to have a press release about it?

Does the government really think other countries don’t have access to the internet or follow the news?
I don’t know about you, but I think announcing your “stealth” propaganda in a major media outlet like USA Today kind of undermines the whole stealth angle you're going for.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Just can't forget that taste....!

My husband does not have a sweet tooth, but he definitely remembers the light and fluffy taste of his auntie’s pumpkin cream pie. I had always baked my pie, but not his pie, he said, so on my first trial, I mixed the pumpkin puree with cool whip and let it chill for a few hours in a baked pie shell – he liked it but that wasn’t IT. Then, I did some serious research… on-line, and this time I added some instant vanilla pudding mix (see the recipe below). This is very quick and soooo easy – just need 3 hours or so to chill – yes, you on a couch and your pie in the fridge. Well, my husband approved it, so I’m sure this will be our all-time favorite holiday dessert.


· 2 cups cold milk
· 2 (3.5 ounce) packages instant vanilla pudding mix
· 1 cup canned LIBBY'S® 100% Pure Pumpkin
· 1 cup thawed Cool Whip
· 1 (9 inch deep) pie crust, baked OR graham cracker pie crust

1. Mix cool whip, milk, pudding mix, and pumpkin in a deep bowl.
2. Beat at lowest speed of an electric mixer for about 1 minute.
3. Pour filling into cooled pie shell or graham cracker pie crust.
4. Chill until set, about 3 hours.

Pip & MJ. Dynamic Duo or World's Finest?

So Scottie Pippen just had his #33 retired and hung from the rafters of United Center. I must say it was quite the spectacle. To see Scottie, Michael, Phil, Horace, Dennis, Craig Hodges (!), et. al. all gathered at center court brought a tear to the eye.

But in all the buildup to Scottie's retirement ceremony, all the retrospectives and tributes to Pippen focused on his partnership with Michael Jordan. I'm not here to debate Pippen's place in the annals of basketball history; instead, I want to focus on a misplaced analogy many sportswriters and talking heads have been using to describe the Jordan/Pippen tandem.

Everywhere you look, articles commemorating Pippen's career refer to him as the ultimate sidekick. The Robin to Jordan's Batman. And the title of "Dynamic Duo" actually followed the two throughout their career. And while Jordan
and Pippen were indeed a 'dynamic duo,' the Batman & Robin analogy just never worked for me. I guess it's the fanboy in me, but the implication that Pip was Robin doesn't do justice to the role he actually served on those six championships. Pippen wasn't Jordan's "sidekick" so much as he was his complement. He had skills that Jordan didn't have but were able to blend into his game. Rather, I always saw the two as the "World's Finest," the moniker given to the two greatest superheroes of all time: Superman and Batman.

Pippen, you see, is the Batman to Jordan's Superman (with apologies to Shaq). Here's why:

Here's a little background on Batman & Robin.
Batman is the alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne. Wayne became the Dark Knight in an effort to rid his city of crime because he was the victim of a senseless and tragic mugging. When he was eight years old, he lost his parents on the streets of "Crime Alley" in a botched robbery attempt. From that day forward, Wayne vowed to avenge his parents' murder and eventually became the Batman to instill fear in the hearts of criminals. Flash forward 20 years and Wayne has mentally and physically trained himself to be the only superhero without any super powers. Only through sheer will and cunning is he able to become the caped crusader.

Some years later, the young acrobat Dick Grayson also witnesses the murder of his parents as a result of a mob deal gone bad. The Flying Graysons are murdered in the middle of a circus act, with Bruce Wayne in attendance. Seeing that young Dick Grayson is in the same position Wayne was as a child, the billionaire offers to take in now-orphaned acrobat and decides to offer his young ward a path. Through hard work, training and dedication, Bruce is able to mold Grayson into his crimefighting partner.

So without Batman, there would never have been a Robin. Who knows how Dick Grayson would have developed without the presence of Batman to guide him along the way.

Many may argue this is reminiscent of the Jordan/Pippen relationship. That it was the years of tutelage in practice that made Pippen into one of the best all-around players to play the game. There's probably some truth in that. But you don't become the 7th pick in the draft (especially coming out of Central Arkansas!) without having some talent of your own. Like Bruce Wayne, Scottie Pippen willed himself into being one of the NBA's 50 greatest players of all time through sheer hard work and dedication. I suspect Scottie would have still become a great NBA player had he stayed in Seattle and was never traded to the Bulls.

I think Scottie more than proved himself to be a capable NBA player without Michael Jordan by his side.
He should've been the MVP during the 1993-94 season -- the season after Jordan's first retirement. He single-handedly led a totally revamped Bulls team to a 55-win season and was one bad call from taking his team to the Eastern Conference Finals and subsequently the Finals. In 2000, Pippen got even closer to the Finals until his Blazers self-destructed in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Many people like to point out that Pippen never won a championship without Michael. But he's definitely come closer than Michael ever has without Scottie.

Though this is not to belittle Michael Jordan. God knows I'd never do that. For all intents and purposes, Jordan is Superman. His athletic abilities (or should I say super powers?) are inherent. He flies through the sky at ease and saves the day at the end of games. He was also the public face of the Bulls and the NBA itself. Like Superman, Jordan was the ultimate superhero of the NBA and his name ultimately became the metaphor for greatness. (Notice how anyone who excels at his or her particular field is called "the Michael Jordan of..." said trade. As in "Tiger Woods is the Michael Jordan of golf.")

Conversely, this makes Scottie Pippen even more like Batman. Whereas Superman does his acts of heroism in broad daylight to the cheers of thousands of adoring fans, Batman mainly operates in the shadows.
The citizens of Gotham aren't even sure he exists, preferring to think that stories of the Batman are just urban legend, and he prefers it that way. Scottie always operated better underneath Jordan's undeniable shadow. That way, opponents never knew what hit them. Just as the Justice League relies on Batman's cunning and intellect to bring down their enemies, so too did the Bulls unleash Scottie as their secret defensive weapon. Need to shut down Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard to ever play the game? Sic Scottie on him (1991 NBA Finals). Who led the Bulls' rally from 15 points down in the 4th of Game 6 of the 1992 Finals while MJ cheered on from the bench? When the Bulls were desperate for a defensive stop in Game 7 against the Knicks in 1993, who blocked Charles Smith's layup attempts? Twice?! To me, Pip's enduring legacy is that he actually made defense fun to watch.

Moreover, Pippen's demeanor also more closely resembles the dark and brooding Batman. Sullen and contemplative, Pippen never recieved all the accolades and praise that was showered on Jordan. However, his skills were recognized by his peers and basketball aficianados. In 1996, Scottie Pippen was deservedly named one of the 50 Greatest Players of all time. Though he never led the league in scoring or rebounds or assists, most purists recognized his skills went beyond the stat sheet.

Even non-comic fans understand and perceive Superman and Batman as equals. This despite the fact that one is a super-powered alien from Krypton, while the other is no more than a well-funded human being with a lot of determination. Still, no other two fictional characters have ever had such a profound effect on the zeitgeist of popular culture.

Similarly, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are equals in more ways than many people imagine. When they were in their primes, during the championship seasons, these two forces were arguably the two best players in the game. A duo that dynamic can only be called the World's Finest.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Who says 'no' to a 3hr-nap?

Ever since the National Zoo in D.C. had a panda cub, Tai Shan, I have become (more?) obsessed with pandas and been so drawn to their charm. I can (and do sometimes) watch pandas all day long. . . even though all they do is eat and sleep – maybe that’s what attracts me about pandas! -- at least thanks to them, I justified my ‘napping’ time by taking a panda-nap rather than catnap – so there!

In the beginning

I've never been good at keeping a journal, but I thought I'd try it anyway.
Periodically, you'll be hearing from myself and my wife go on about pandas and whatever else is keeping us from working at that particular time.

We'll see how long this experiment lasts.

In the meantime, here's a sleeping panda:

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