“You know, punk died in 1991, when Nirvana sold out.”
We had been marched into a side room of the conference hall with our school portfolios, given the opportunity to receive feedback on our work from practicing design professionals, which, I’m pretty sure were there for the free booze.
Our dean asked us to look presentable: I bought new gray slacks and a blue collared button-up for the occasion, as anything else outside of my “Dickies work pants and band shirt” attire that had a collar was a little too, uh, rockabilly. Oh, and a white undershirt, too. I had never worn one before that, and was mortified to try on the shirt the night before, only to see my nipples through the cloth. I had shorn off the blue/green hair, but kept the denim jacket with the band pins. To those who knew me, I might as well have walked down that hall with a Sixpence None the Richer backing track.
The piece in discussion was a typography project, where I recreated a layout using the text from Kent McClard’s interview with Born Against in No Answers #10. “Who is Born Against?” a man in a business suit from a publishing company asked. Oh, they’re a punk band. No, no, no. Punk’s dead, he said.
I explained to him that Nirvana’s success and the resulting alternative music feeding frenzy actually created a massive vacuum in which independent labels like Dischord, Kill Rock Stars, Lookout!, Merge, Revelation, Sub Pop, and Touch & Go thrived. For every post-grunge commercial stinker like Candlebox, there were a hundred more creatively exciting bands flying under the radar. The punk bible Maximum Rock ’n Roll couldn’t thoroughly cover the underground, and the abundance of music gave way to HeartattaCk and Punk Planet as other major media outlets. Punk was prolific!
I rattled off a list of contemporary bands to prove that the broader genre of punk was still viable: Sleater-Kinney was blowing up college radio, Tragedy patches graced every crust kid’s backpack, Converge was a legitimate band in metal circles, The Dirtbombs had just put out Ultraglide in Black — easily that summer’s #1 jam, Fugazi’s still around and The Argument was one of their best, and The Rapture had signed to Sub Pop, nodding towards something big coming out of Brooklyn, but no one really knew how to describe it.
Nope. Never heard of any of ‘em. Doesn’t matter, because punk was already dead. If punk was any good, I would have heard of them by now. You should listen to good music, like Radiohead.
Time was up. My peers had gotten feedback from a dozen professionals, and I was dejectedly stuck at two. What was worse: that I barely “networked” for a job in a city I was about to move to, or tried to justify the dumb music I listen to some smegma oil salesman in a suit? It didn’t matter — a few months after I moved to Chicago, terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, rendering everything trivial and sending our nation to that very dark, existential place.
No one was hiring, so between odd jobs, I volunteered at an after school arts program called Young Chicago Authors. Kids would show up, hang out, and hone their creative writing skills instead of aimlessly meandering around the streets, and, well, you’ve seen the news. Chicago, being the birthplace of the poetry slam, means that the majority of these kids were aspiring poets — some making the lateral step to the rap game.
It’s hard to take someone seriously when they say, “I want to be a rapper.” Enough that it’s tough to not dampen one’s expectations and condescendingly write it off as “Oh, the youth of today and their silly and outrageous dreams.” Yeezy dominated the airwaves at the time as a hometown hero, yet I was fairly apathetic to him. At least he was better than P. Diddy. I found myself talking about the past, with a lot of “When I was your age, 36 Chambers came out and people were legitimately terrified of that album.” I was being that guy! Soon, I’ll be shaking my head and muttering, “Kids today…”
One afternoon, a student named Lamon caught my eye across the room. He had a devilish grin and held up his palm. Written on it was, “Life’s not a bitch / Life is a beautiful woman / You only call her a bitch because she won’t let you get that pussy.” It was one of the more memorable lines from Aesop Rock’s “Daylight” — a rapper Lamon and I were talking about the week before. Someone else was finding the good stuff in the undercurrent.
Any cynicism I carried about “the kids” completely dissipated in those YCA workshops. Those teenagers were far brighter and wittier than I ever was at their age. Maybe there’s a maturity gleaned in being raised in the inner city, or the Internet exposed them to a vast culture beyond a kid’s world, or because they were kids who were just being kids with an endless appetite and curiosity towards life. Each week, these kids were constructively critiquing each other’s art. They challenged each other in building vocabulary, twisting their inflections to alliterations, and made inside jokes into motifs to support their themes. Even if none of these kids wins the life lottery of becoming a rapper, they’ll all go on to do good things as good people. And, if this is the future of America, then the kids are going to be alright.
When talking to other over-thirty-somethings about music, you tend to get a sense of when their fertile music years stop. Responsibilities like a career, relationships, or offspring eat up that leisure time spent on shows, touring, or simply even paying attention. It’s understandable — I see it in myself often. What’s unforgivable, is the expectation that good music stops with them, and it happens a lot.
It’s a common theme that pops up in these 1980s hardcore historical reflections. There’s always a point where the talking heads start yelling at the clouds, with comments like, kids today don’t really understand how awesome the 80s were, or today’s hardcore doesn’t really speak to me, or I’m going to revive my old band and show the kids how it’s done (but play the songs at half the speed because I forgot to snort my pre-gig Viagra/crank cocktail). Respect, but talk to Boobie Miles about glory days.
When I talk about rap with friends my age, they lament at how the genre hasn’t been relevant since “the golden years.” That term eventually becoming subjective once I inquire about specifics. To some, it was Public Enemy’s reign. Or when Biggie and/or Tupac died. Or when Eminem blew up. Ah, so “the golden years” just means the period when they stopped listening.
However, no one’s ever said, “When The Roots started playing Jimmy Fallon.” I’d like to hear out that argument. Maybe it’s because contemporary hip hop is at a fruitful period right now, so when people say, “Yeah, rap hasn’t been good since Suge Knight dangled Vanilla Ice off that balcony,” I get dismayed. Specifically — out of sheer Chicago chauvinism — let me point towards a small, tightly-knit group out of the 312: Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Noname, and Saba. Diverse sounds, but they’re all connected with thoughtful, acrobatic wordplay — completely in love with language. Oh, and they’re all Young Chicago Authors alumni.
Obviously, I don’t need to tell this audience that hardcore and punk are alive and well. Throughout the early aughts, my more, uh, “uppity” friends frowned upon it. “Wait, you still go to hardcore shows? Isn’t it just recycled neanderthal music of the same bands back in our day?” Yes. No, in fact, they’re better. Also, Neanderthal rules. Of course, a lot of these same friends eventually came back around, “Have you heard this band Fucked Up on Pitchfork? Hardcore is back!”
All in, it grates me when old people dismiss the youth. There’s an easy cynicism that’s firmly rooted in nostalgia, so instead of a reflection of the times, it reveals the insecurity that this person’s best years are long behind them. It’s a rejection of progress, losing to the fear that tradition is somehow bastardized in the process. So they remain sedate.
Here’s hoping to staying curious. Every time a Sorry State Records newsletter hits my inbox, I inevitably wonder two things: 1) This is a lot of bands I know little about and 2) How much can one really write about hardcore? Click. Oh, jeepers. The kids are going to be just fine without us. Stay posi.
Red Dons / The Dead Hand of Tradition LP
We all know from Doug Burns’ tenure in The Observers that he can write a satisfying melodic punch. That immediacy is more elusive with Red Dons, where youthful anger is traded for anthems of alienation and the catchy stuff is woven into brooding textures. The third LP is their most thoughtful, letting the hooks take their time to breathe and build. When the tension breaks, they really shimmer. It’s also the loneliest Red Dons record, with a constant push and pull of outsider yearning vs. withdrawn introspection. With the band now scattered over three continents — given the unique populace of Vancouver, WA is its own world — one wonders if that distance translates sonically.
Jamila Woods / HEAVN mixtape
Another Young Chicago Authors nod — not an alum, but the Associate Artistic Director. Most people are familiar with her hook on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy,” so we know she can sing. Her tape is light and furious: beats inspired by old playground clapping games, topped with silly melodic nods to Paula Cole’s Dawson’s Creek theme and The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" deliver an aesthetic that coats the pained anger fueled by the Black Lives Matter conversation, intersectionality identity politics, and Chicago’s violence. Despite the despair, it never wallows — Woods’ strength is standing her ground and it uplifts us all.
Double Negative reunion
When I call out aging old punker farts lamenting the kids like it’s another bout with gout, I’m not talking about Double Negative. What I loved about -/- was that it was elder punks contributing to modern punk by not vicariously reliving old memories. They didn’t form with expectations or a sense of entitlement — just put up, shut up, and let the work speak for itself. That work was fresh and interesting, with absolutely nothing about -/- was going through the motions. They’ve reunited to play the benefit for the late Brandon Ferrell’s surviving family on August 6th in Richmond, VA. As a test run, -/- played a secret show in Raleigh, NC in their old practice space that’s set to be condemned at the end of July. Here’s some video of the test subjects with their guinea pigs.
Welcome to BLAG. My name is Vincent Chung, a designer and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina.