Wednesday night, I had an epiphany. I had gone to the Paradise to see a performance by singer, songwriter and producer John Forté. After checking out his music, researching for a profile I was doing, I saw he was playing here and decided I had to see him. Standing there before his set and listening to piped in hip-hop, I realized this was the first time I had ever gone to see music of that genre. Like many people, I think, I had a certain preconceived notion of what rap and hip-hop was. Happy to say, that notion would be tossed out the door that night.
My first impression of John Forte when he walked into the nearly empty Paradise was how humble, down-to-earth and unassuming he was, with a genuine calmness and serenity. There was a small group of people near the stage who greeted him whom he seemed to recognize, so they must have been to other shows. It was difficult to believe that this guy had just spent over seven years in prison. I don’t know what I was expecting; maybe a sort of hardened attitude or roughness. Certainly not this gentle, soft-spoken person who was chatting and laughing with his fans.
He performed solo, with both acoustic guitar and electric, and spoke very honestly and openly about his incarceration and soul-searching as he introduced the songs, several of which are about this experience and insights he’s had. I’m still acquainting myself with his music, but I’m pretty certain he played most, if not all, of his recent StyleFREE EP – “Stylefree”, “Breaking of a Man”, “Nervous”, “There We Are”, “Play My Cards for Me”, “More Beautiful Now”, and “Best That Love Could Be”. The last four are incredibly sweet love songs really, sung as softer R&B/folk ballads. “Play My Cards for Me” is especially touching; it’s about someone being there to carry on when you’re unable to do so yourself. Seemingly simple and straightforward but with surprising poignancy, due in no small part to the sincerity in his delivery.
His musical style is unusual, in that he’ll combine an acoustic folk/R&B sound, soulful as hell, with hard-hitting rap verses, which I felt was incredibly effective. He brings you in real close, and then WAAMMM!! “Breaking of a Man” and “Nervous” are great examples of this.
“I saw the sky part like the red sea, the world is nervous
I saw the sun cry and bleed, the world is getting nervous
I saw my best friend become my enemy, who aren’t nervous
everything ain’t what it’s supposed to be, you should be nervous.
Even here amongst so many, I stand alone
and search for a link between my actions and the way one thinks
some essence of a connection in a world divided
I’m antithetical, the rhetoric, federal propaganda
that sends babies to war and says “fight for the hell of it”
they keep insulting my intelligence
like everyone outside of politics is some nitwit
we’ll clash as long as phases of the moon are cyclic
I’ve seen you entertain your hedonism, breeding your elitism
You told me what I needed on a short list, with freedom missing
I’ve been advised to play by the rules
that’s if I ever want to see the light of day in the future
they’d rather see me soft-shoe, shufflin’ and performing
you tell my brother I love him, I’ll be home by morning
tell my mother I’m fine, and everything is different
I’m stronger, more determined, and I’ve never thought clearer
lock my body, can’t trap my mind
easily explains how I surpassed the time
how much confusion have the press stories produced this year?
the blind know not the difference between truth and fear
as with all things, one day, I’ll be gone from here
but not before I tell the world that John was here.”
To anyone out there who hears the word “rap” and turns right off, think of this as poetry delivered over musical accompaniment, and I guarantee you’ll be blown away as I was with John’s skillful mastery with words, his message woven into the music like fine strands of silk.
One song I was very surprised to hear when I first listened to John’s music on MySpace is a remake of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”. Apart from making the song personal and introspective with his take on his experiences and struggles, I was amazed to hear how well his faithful rendering of the chorus meshed with his rapping verses. It just works so beautifully.
Midway through his set, he was fiddling with this electronic device he was using for musical-accompaniment (which I thought he called a “Geo”, though I’m not knowledgeable about such things and can’t find any info, so maybe I misheard him). This was another humble and personal moment as he related what it’s like to be away from the world (and its technological advances) for so long, explaining that he didn’t know what an iPod was, Wi-fi, etc., but that he was ‘getting on board’ with it all now. I don’t think the audience minded when he finally ditched the one-man-band and went back to his tried-and-true acoustic guitar. As he had commented earlier, this was a “lyric-driven audience” focused intently on what he was saying, and far better to hear him with the most minimal of accompaniment.
He also performed a song which he said he usually doesn’t do, but would for us tonight. It’s obviously one which requires close listening, and fortunately this Boston audience was right there with him. I believe the song is called “Off The Deep End”.
John’s latest StyleFREE EP is available from his website. The physical CD will be released on September 22nd, and can be preordered from amazon.com. It contains seven tracks that won’t be included on his forthcoming Water, Light, Sound full-length album, due out next year.
He’ll next be performing at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC on September 17, and on World Café Live in Philadelphia on September 18.
Before I tell you how wonderful MURS (“Making Underground Raw Shit”) was, I must first apologize to all his fans (and John Forté’s as well), those who have been ‘in the know’ for years now, waiting patiently for the rest of the world to discover these guys. Sorry. I really had no idea. I always steered clear of hip-hop, my understanding of this genre polluted by years of mainstream violence-inciting, misogynist-preaching, gold chain wearing, drug-enhanced, crotch-grabbing, ego-stroking, major label-hyped ‘gangsta-style’ rap. Any vague recollections I had of trips to the Village in NYC in the early ’80s, a naive white chick from the Connecticut suburbs, being fascinated by the break-dancing culture on the streets there… well, that seems like several lifetimes ago, and a completely different musical genre. Those were hip-hop and rap’s beginnings (see Murs’ absolutely brilliant video “The Science” below), but then the music and the message were watered down and pimped by profit-seeking record labels for mass consumption, the artists starting believing their own hype, and the more visionary, boundary-pushing artists got forced underground.
I only wish now that I had stayed for MURS’ entire set, but I stayed a lot longer than I originally intended to. MURS a.k.a. Nick Carter, has been around since the early 90’s, and has performed with 3 Melancholy Gypsys, Living Legends, Felt, The Netherworlds, and 9th Wonder. The latest of his eight solo albums is Murs for President, released in 2008.
Though I was not familiar with his music at all, I thought he was really great – an engaging storyteller, hard-hitting lyrics, on-target political and social observations, hilarious at times, and very entertaining. The crowd was a swaying, dancing, chanting, multi-limbed additional band member. It went way beyond “audience interaction” – they all knew his stuff intimately. As for ‘MURS’ himself – well, unless I misheard him, he had apparently just been treated for a hernia and wasn’t supposed to be moving around. Ha! He was prowling that stage back and forth constantly as he rapped, never stopping for more than a half second.
Again I’ll say, I’ve never been much of a hip-hop fan, but this was wonderful. I’m not sure who the DJ was performing with him, but he was superb, and there was this seamless interaction between them. I realize I must sound a little moronic with my wide-eyed discovery here, but I never realized how much I actually like this style of music, in its pure unadulterated form, when it’s just about the music and the message.
MURS performs at the House of Blues in Anaheim, CA, on October 9th. His latest CD is MURS for President.
My father, who’s not a rap fan even more than I wasn’t, said to me when I tried to explain how profound and relevant John Forté and MURS are, “well, they might be good songwriters, but rap isn’t Shakespeare”. Well, maybe it can be.share this: