The Oxonian Review is a humanities journal run by graduate students at the University of Oxford. In their most recent issue (35.8), they featured my review of Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection of poetry, Kumukanda (2017). The review makes the case that 2017 has been a rare high-point in the diversity of poetic form, subject, and voice and draws particular attention to the way Chingonyi’s collection is about “love” in its many forms.
Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection lies near the heart of 2017’s course towards a more conscious poetics. Although the collection is his debut, Kumukanda reads more like a culmination than it does a commencement: the end of a first chapter or the final task of an initiation ritual (“Kumukanda”, as the poet explains, is a word meaning “initiation” and refers to a ritual that marks “the passage into adulthood of Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi, and Mbunda boys, from North Western Zambia and its surrounding regions”). Kumukanda, in other words, is ‘learned’ rather than ‘still learning’…
On 8 September 2017, Jason Cornell (better known as BRZOWSKI) released his third full-length solo record: ENMITYVILLE. As with his previous releases, BRZOWSKI’s new album is meticulously crafted. Each one of its various “parts” (sonic, aesthetic, lyrical) have been fine-tuned to create a remarkably coherent “whole.” At the same time, the album’s “various parts” have the capacity to stand alone: they manage to embody the “coherent whole” of the album in-and-of-themselves, without any support. The relation between the microcosmic (the parts) and the macrocosmic (the whole) levels of BRZOWSKI’s latest record is a topic too big to discuss here. So – only one example will have to suffice…
Let’s take the album’s title: ENMITYVILLE. First and foremost, “Enmityville” implies a “place”: a small village or suburb, for example. As such, “Enmityville” is a space with defined borders; a place that one must travel to and enter. As an album, ENMITYVILLE is an acoustic equivalent to the confined space suggested by its title. The album is–plainly speaking–unique. Its blending of early 90s rap, parred-down beats, and rock ornamentation is an unprecedented (almost hermetic) style. To press “play” on ENMITYVILLE is to find yourself pulled into new territory and not released until the album’s close.
The title “Enmityville” also hints at the character of this confined space. “Enmityville” is, well, a place of “enmity”: of hostility and division. Whereas the social ideal of the small village or suburb is amicability and happiness (often manifesting itself in a perverted and “Disneyfied” form), here, friction, opposition, grit, and grime are its overwhelming qualities. Additionally, “Enmityville” is a place of horror and the macabre. By an associative leap, the title brings the listener to the territory of “The Amityville Horror”: to the terrifying supernatural experiences of the Lutz family at their home in Amityville, New York. As an album, ENMITYVILLE easily translates “enmity” and “horror” into an acoustic experience by infusing certain gothic tropes into its instrumentation: picked bass lines, heavy synths, monotone choruses, and Halloween-like effects.
In spite of the specificity of “Enmityville,” the space BRZOWSKI creates is also an “everytown.” In being a fictional equivalent to the suburb or small village, it exposes the underpinnings of such apparently stable social structures. BRZOWSKI does not shy away from direct attacks at the evils behind contemporary society, even in its smallest instantiations: its consumerist tendencies and its corporate culture. In this dystopian present, the status of the artist–pushed to society’s peripheries–is a concern. While such a peripheral status is certainly a difficulty to the artist’s physical perservation, however, it is this peripherality that also gives BRZOWSKI the freedom to sonically experiment.
In short, the title of BRZOWSKI’s latest album serves as a linguistic analogue or microcosm of the 45-minute acoustic experience that is ENMITYVILLE. As I’ve described above, the album’s title reflects its content largely on a thematic basis. However, a formal similarity also exists. The verbal acrobatics of the title (its punning, associations, reversal, and rhyme) effectively reflect BRZOWSKI’s manipulation and play with the language and sounds of rap. In his hands, sounds do not remain fixed in their denotative or conventional form, but, there, warp and convolute. Both album and album title are like a house-of-mirrors or–more aptly–a maze of horrors and excitements.
As such, ENMITYVILLE is a place in which the listener can easily get lost. The purpose of this extended interview with BRZOWSKI is to act as something of a guide-book. The interview’s many flaws (on the side of the interviewer) only confirm the need for such a guide-book type interview, for they reveal something of the difficult relationship between the creator of ENMITYVILLE and its listener. Although BRZOWSKI has guided my questions by his music, he has–making his work maze-like–given me enough freedom to make certain mental associations and leaps in logic that are, flatly, illogical. ENMITYVILLE does get a lot of its excitement by this kind of dual action: by bringing the listener into the work (into the confined space of “Enmityville”) and also giving the listener enough freedom to move beyond it–to connect a word, phrase, beat, or sample to something apparently unrelated (causing “Enmityville” to become an “everytown”); but, it also gets much of its difficult from such dual action.
It’s easy to get lost in such territory. Welcome to ENMITYVILLE…
Jason Cornell (aka BRZOWSKI) is a rapper from Portland, Maine via Providence, Rhode Island. Cornell has been part of musical projects around New England since the early 1990s. Over the twenty-five years of his musical career, BRZOWSKI has performed over one-thousand live shows, released three full-length albums, four mixtapes, five ep’s, and two 7″ singles, and made countless featured appearances. His self-released CD-R New England Gothic (2002) and his Milled Pavement releases MarryShelleyOverdrive (2005) and A Fitfull Sleep (2011) are mainstays in the New England underground scene. BRZOWSKI is also known for performing in the rap/goth/doom group, Vinyl Cape. You can find him on: Twitter, Facebook, and Bandcamp.
Listen and purchase BRZOWSKI’s latest project, ENMITYVILLE, here:
AA. I want to begin by taking a look at the visual aesthetic of your new project. Let’s begin with the “stencil typeface” of your wordmark. It immediately takes me in two directions. The first is to punk and bands like Crass, Agnostic Front, or Rancid who have developed a distinct aesthetic out of the “stencil typeface.” The second is to spray art and, so, to hip hop. The associations you imply in your typeface say a lot about the context from which “BRZOWSKI” emerged. In high school, you were in a punk band called “Pope on a Rope” (1994-1999) and, later, in a metal band called “Under the Weight” (1999-2003). Almost simultaneously you were graffing with S-One, collaborating with Nyhilistx, and attending the Unity Open Mic nights. Although your legacy is in the hip hop world, your style really seems to come out of a confluence of “sub-cultures.” Did the “BRZOWSKI style” emerge from a deliberate or intentional blending of hip hop and punk? What elements of punk—musical, visual, or ideological—did you see fit to mix, manipulate, and bring into your rap style?
JC. This is, on the surface, a total homage to Gee Vaucher’s work with Crass. I was so taken with that punk-rock collage/propagandist work in my teenage years that it stuck with me for my entire life. I liked the severity of the stenciled font. It looks utilitarian and rather severe, and that is certainly what I’m trying to project at 1st glance. I’ve used a stenciled font/logo since 2002.
In terms of punk rock’s influence, I enjoyed the fact that there was aggression and anger (if at times unfocused) front and center, as well as heavily Leftist politics being on prominent display in a lot of the Crust and UK Thrash I enjoyed.
The blending was more ideological and visual, I don’t consider my personal audio production or what beats I choose to work with to be all that influenced by punk, aside from the aforementioned and the pervasive DIY ethos. D-Beat drum patterns and buzz-saw power-chord progressions don’t fuse well with a rapped or spoken delivery, in my experience.
AA. For your album art, you’ve chosen an oil-painting by Nicole Duennebier called “Hunting Hotbed.” I know you have a background in the visual arts yourself: between 2001 and 2003, you attended Maine College of Art and received a BFA in painting with a minor in Art History. In spite of your personal history with visual art, you’ve largely kept your visual practice separate from your musical one. What does Duennebier’s painting contribute to your music that a painting of your own couldn’t?
JC. To boil the question down to the bones, the fact is that when I execute the art for my own record, I feel like I’m talking to myself. It feels overly self-referential and masturbatory. I did the photography used for the covers of A Fitful Sleep, Blooddrive Vol. 1, Blooddrive Vol. 3, contributed a painting to the Milled Pavement Records instrumental compilation Hold Yr Tongue, did two paintings for the Black Puddin’s (Moshe & 32French) Deeelicious! EP, painted/drew the cover for the Raygunomics Spunik EP (w/Nomar Slevik), drew the cover art for a few early demos….and I feel like I can be more divorced when I’m capturing an image or painting for someone else’s project, as opposed to manifesting a visual representation of my own musical output. My paintings are often humorous or derivative of recognizable “pop-cultural” iconography/detritus (two things I don’t usually overtly explore in my music), and Nicole’s work from this period in her career is hermetic, Renaissance-influenced, and mildly obtuse. This is everything that worked as a visual representation of the music contained therein.
AA. As a follow up question, do you think bringing your personal interest in art—visual or otherwise—into the “professional” and “academic” setting of Art School affected your approach to the arts at all?
JC. Coming from Art School and still being involved in it in various capacities, it absolutely shapes my rather academic approach to making art of all forms. I think about legacy, I think about interpretation, I try to make a “work-out-of-time” so it has replay/re-examine value, I think about a body of work and not one song/piece existing alone out of context, I think about things being Archival as opposed to Ephemeral. And I realize that process is only truly important for the artist, not the audience.
I remember around 2001 a favorite professor of mine, Sean Foley (an amazingly accomplished painter based out of Mount Desert Island, Maine-for now) saying to me: “Are you making Art for Everyone (IE- Pop/Kitsch), Art for The Mildly-Initiated, or Art for Artists?”….I knew right then I was making Art for Artists, but wanted to reward the more adventurous of the Mildly Initiated… but truthfully I am conscientious not to consider “audience” anymore when actively making. I owe the present audience better than that.
Track 1. “Masking Fluid and Painter’s Tape”
AA. Now let’s get into the meat of the album. The first track on ENMITYVILLE begins with a moody guitar arpeggio, bowed violin (possibly cello?), and scratching, before a heavy bass line and drumbeat drives the song from its atmospheric intro to its first verse. In these opening moments, we also hear two vocal samples: a snippet from the movie CBGB (2013) and another from a talk delivered by the painter Mike Kelley (1954-2012). The vocal samples immediately make the topic of the song clear: your choice to take up the unprofitable and unacknowledged profession of “artist”—a choice that has left you an “other.” Do you think the fate of the artist is always bound to an “outsider” status? Do you resent “dominant culture’s” tendency to laud monetary pursuits and disparage artistic ones?
JC. No, it is not absolute, by any means. I know an appreciable amount of people who are fortunate/savvy/tenacious enough to make a living solely from artistic pursuits, ranging from paltry to extravagant. It is possible to make a living off of art, but if you are considering the audience too much or worried about sales in the act of creation, you have already failed, artistically.
It’s not an inexorable fate to languish in obscurity or poverty, but it is a common one. The artist is not the “Other” any more than the mirror is: we hold up a reflection to the world at large and ask them for their comprehension. Usually those that understand are in 2 of the 3 strata of “audience” outlined above.
I absolutely reject the whims of the Market and “dominant culture”, hence the sample from good ole Mike (RIP). That isn’t sexy messaging–but that’s where I’m at.
Track 2. “Contemporary Cynic”
AA. Your first line on this track—delivered over distorted, down-stroked guitar chords—is a play on the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” You say, “I have seen the greatest minds of my generation ruined by who gives a fuck.” The line is an interesting application of a postmodern attitude of indifference and inactivity to a literary work that is actively critical of modern civilization. The “postmodern” dimension of your song reaches its climax in the “meta-” lines of the song’s chorus: “Here’s where the feeling is supposed to happen / Here’s where I get inspired to write a chorus / Here’s where I put my better tomorrow / Something cliché right now.” Firstly, do you agree with Ginsberg’s assessment of modern civilization as “Moloch”: industrial, monstrous, inconsiderate, and bloodsucking. Secondly, do you think apathy, indifference, and inactivity contribute to the evil conditions of modern civilization, or, is this postmodern attitude the only way we can really cope with it?
JC. Yes, I absolutely agree with Ginsberg’s appraisal (regardless of how I feel about A.G. the human). “Moloch” has risen in scope and popularity since Howl was written, to be sure. Apathy, indifference, and inactivity are symptoms of the societal ills, that is, they are a reaction to the problems (ecological devastation, rampant corruption, nepotism, medicine-for-profit, lack of livable-wage working class jobs, etc.)……it’s a coping mechanism. I’d almost prefer the clichéd “angst” of the 90s and early 00s to the apathetic posturing that seems so prevalent. The world is actually on fire and you are actually going to die because you can’t afford medical treatment…is the best use of your time to project a cool indifference?
My adoption of the pervasive apathy is addressing the narcissism, vanity, and affectation of indifference….it’s not that “ I don’t care” as the sample refrains. It’s that I care so much, and have been so consistently disappointed, that now I’m icy and PoMo for survival purposes too. “I’m glad you had some kids, the world needs some more wage-slaves.”
Track 3. “Demonic Exercises”
AA. “Demonic Exercises” also touches on the theme of the “artist as outsider.” Like in “Masking Fluid and Painter’s Tape,” you seem to depict the artist as someone who acts and, by doing so, actively sets themselves apart. In the opening line of the song, you actually depict yourself engaging in two forms of activity: composing and teaching. You say, “I am an outlaw / drawn and quoted on vellum / with architectural pencils / counseling wayfarers on composition.” As someone who acts doubly, you also seem to be doubly removed from mainstream culture: you (an outlaw) teach composition to wayfarers (outlaws themselves). This may seem like a big leap, but I want to ask you about your use of the phrase “post-rap” to describe your music. Does it function in the same way as the line above: i.e. to draw attention to a sort of “double remove”? Do you use it to deliberately set yourself apart from a sub-culture—hip hop—already set apart?
JC. That IS a big leap. And I’m completely onboard … I mean that by “post-rap” exactly what the progenitors of post-rock, post-metal, or post-hardcore implied by deploying that particular prefix. After “Prog- “ comes “Post-.” Rap is the trope that was the substrate for germination, and this is what comes after. I feel very divorced from hip hop or rap, but in certain ways I always did. The designs I schemed on for rapping in the context of hip-hop music were always headed over the left-field fence. To participate in this particular culture, I have complete self-awareness that I’m a white guy with 2 art degrees. I acknowledge that I’m a guest in the cultural arena of hip hop, and act accordingly.
Track 4. “Leave It All Behind”
AA. “Leave It All Behind” slows the pace of the album down again: an unhurried guitar melody rings out over a minimal drumbeat, to compliment your slowed and more measured flow. The song’s lyrics seem to complicate the theme of “activity,” which we have been touching upon in the last few questions. You consider the idea of “work,” here, in the more conventional context of a 9-to-5 and, while doing so, depict it as a sort of Sisyphean endeavor: “The tournament is won by he who gives up on all their other interests / the ladder is grease and that rope is a loner / You can’t afford it.” Although you depict the idea of “work”—in the American dream or Protestant ethic sense—as unfruitful, meaningless, and shackling, I do think you propose a kind of “way out”…
The song includes a number of samples: a speech made by Francis Underwood in House of Cards, an interview with Mark Cuban, and a snippet of a Rick and Morty episode. Somehow, these samples seem to amount to more than just you adhering to one of the conventions of rap music. They seem, rather, to be an example of a possible re-organization, re-contextualization, a shuffling, and a giving of “meaning” to otherwise disparate entities. Is there, in fact, a politics in your sampling practice? Is the “meaningful re-shuffling” involved in sampling a template for a certain political practice? Or, is re-shuffling also fruitless—do we need full revolution?
JC. In my past lives as a student and educator, one of the recurring themes of conversation was that “everything has been done, but not everything has been combined.” This theoretical academic framework was in lockstep with the dawn of “Remix Culture” in the early 2000s, and is still playing out in contemporary culture. By re-appropriating popular culture and re-deploying it as an anti-capitalist or pro-labor sentiment is a detournement I’m interested in exploring, and it’s been of interest to me for some time. For the less-initiated, a (barely…or very) recognizable sample may provide a point of entry. I can’t scry into the cultural crystal ball and see what Full Revolution would look like, in terms of sampling. To Purists in “hip hop”, full rejection of the original “digging” culture is already been in full swing since the early 00’s. This is an interesting exercise-to envision what a total-redefinition of sampling practice would look like.
Track 5. “Pit Mine”
AA. This gothic sounding track is the first place you mention the derelict “everyplace” you call “Enmityville.” What does the creation of a fictional “place” add to the communication of your message?
JC. Naming ENMITYVILLE as a locale puts this is in the context of “Everytown, USA”. This is a play on the common US town name “Amityville”, most often associated with the “Amityville Horror” haunting case of the 1970s. Amity meaning “an amicable relationship,” vs. Enmity, meaning “ the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone/something.” I’ve had the name/framework for 3 years or so, while I crafted and collected the songs that made it on the album.
Track 6. “Fall Zone Pink”
AA. During the heavy guitar chords, erratic drums, and quickly-picked guitar melody that make up the chorus of “Fall Zone Pink,” you rap the line, “push for answers where nothing seem to be presented.” Again, I’m going to make an associative leap. This process of “pushing for meaning” is really a summation of what may be called “critical thinking,” or, in this context, “critical listening.” If I’m understanding your lyrics correctly, you imagine this process as being difficult, but also revelatory. Can you speak a little bit more about the process of “pushing for meaning”? Is this the type of critical thinking you hope for from your listeners?
JC. This is a lengthy bridge from the song’s content, and I appreciate the more obtuse analytic detour.
Historically, the works of art/literature/film/architecture- whatever- that have given me the greatest intellectual rewards have been the ones that were difficult to understand. If I like it the 1st time, it will play itself out. As a teenager, Nietzsche was impenetrable, but I knew I wanted to understand. So I kept re-reading his work and understanding the context until I understood. Then I concluded… “ok, cool, I finally understand. But also, partially fuck-this-guy and his more selfish ideas.”
It took me a while to understand and appreciate Marx, Modernism, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Žižek……jazz music, quinoa. I still don’t enjoy jazz. I still don’t like quinoa. Although I fully appreciate and can internalize their value Every area of exploration was worth the time to understand.
Do I hope to get that same commitment from listeners? I hope, of course. I piss down the wishing-well, and optimistically expect genies and clairvoyants to burst forth with their presumed aid and utilitarian adulation. Some listeners dive deeply and meet me at shows or message me on the intertubes to ask about meanings or discuss concepts, and I thoroughly enjoy that, and feel a mild validation as a resulting effect. I feel that my efforts are understood by the small few who were tuned to receive them and were on that hunt for meaning. I don’t trouble myself with their volume.
I’m realistic about my expectations of the listener, but I always remain hopeful. That “OH SHIT” moment the listener gets when the meaning of a song or line dawns on them is worth it. I love those “AHA!” moments myself, that feeling never gets old.
Track 7. “Surplus Humanity”
AA. On first listen, “Surplus Humanity”—a song characterized by an odd keyboard melody, played over droning guitar chords and upbeat drumming—seems to be about overpopulation; however, upon a second or third listen, a more complex concept comes to the surface. The “surplus” you speak about is not, in fact, “breeding gone wild,” but, rather, something closer to the proliferation of what may be called “the masses”—a horde of people who have lost their individuality and humanity to materialism, plastics, social media, and mechanization. As an artist, do you not feel the pressure of these objectifying forces? How do you navigate the tenuous line between keeping true to your self (Jason Cornell) and the marketing of your rap-self (BRZOWSKI)?
JC. Of course I feel these Spectacular forces at work. I hear the feedback all the time: “Dress younger, lose some weight, get some more tattoos, make more music videos, post more pictures of yourself on social media!” A bunch of things that may help my “Brand” or marketing, but would alienate the folks that have been riding with me for the past 16 years…not to mention alienate me, myself. I take the suggestions with a boulder of sea salt.
The line between BRZOWSKI and Jason Cornell is fairly fluid and malleable. BRZOWSKI is less of a “character” and more of a hypertrophic extension of certain under-expressed personality traits and thoughts in Jason’s day-to-day, so Jason can stay convivial, kind, and gregarious in nature. BRZO says what Jason thinks, on stage and on record. Jason is an intensely private person, 2 or 3 shades less combative, and doesn’t do interviews. (guffaw of laughter ensues)
Track 8. “Microplastics”
AA. The politics on this experiment in dub and electronic sounds is quite focused: the effects of pollution on the environment. Close to the end of the song, you rap the lines: “trying to understand the aesthetics of abandoned shopping malls / Renaissance landscapes you will never experience I promise you / Nostalgia to eras long since over, but not quite gone.” I want to know if you have a personal connection to “place” and, more specifically, to “nature”? Do you think your art embodies the “places” that are meaningful to you (“the icy wastes of New England,” as you say)? Are these “places” now under threat?
JC. Those lines that you quote in particular are a skewering of the trappings of “Vapor-wave”- a subculture I find fascinating, but ultimately of the Spectacle, and not a true counter-culture. High on Concept, Low on Content. This of course largely depends on the creator helming the vehicle. My long-time collaborator C $ Burns made a few stunning Vapor-wave records in the past two years, and changed the way I thought of the entire cultural experiment (TRANZ, out on the label HVRF Central Command is the one I most highly recommend to start).
I have a huge connection to “place”. The Disneyfication/Starbucksification/whatever is making everywhere the same place. I’m against that. I don’t want to patronize a chain-store, chain restaurant, or anything of that ilk. Where is the localism of “here”? I want to be where the locals are, no matter where I am. I want that genuine experience of being in this place that I am. I don’t tour Germany to eat at Subway. I don’t play St. Louis to eat at Jimmy Johns. I intensely love New England. A grip of my early records said “Product of New England” on the back, near the copyright info. My music is from the Northeast US, absolutely, and an expression of the 10 month winter. We’re sharp in tone, don’t suffer fools well (if we know better), and like to do things quickly to keep the blood pumping. That said, I was heavily influenced by westcoast US underground hiphop, and to a lesser degree, punk. Freestyle Felowship, CVE, and the like. 2 of my favorite live-music moments ever were from the westcoast: Getting onstage to rock a song at the Project Blowed open Mic in 2006, headlining the Gilman St. in Berkeley on a Friday night with my man DJ Halo in 2016.
Track 9. “So I Walk”
AA. “So I Walk” is another goth-y track: an echoed bass line, heavy synths, and flat singing in the chorus. Can you explain your interest in the gothic, the macabre, horror movies, and in hermitic figures (those “strangers in the woods”)? Is your affinity for the macabre purely aesthetic, or do the themes and figures associated with it communicate something that isn’t addressed in other aesthetic genres?
JC. I’ve been interested in the Gothic idea of creative expression since I was a teenager, particularly in relation to Romanticism. “Backward-looking thoughts”, some of which are based on an era I never experienced. I appreciated ruined castles in the same way younger artists fetishize the 80s or 90s. My recollection of those decades from my youth appraise that those times were horrid and shallow, but since it seems to have more substance, or to be imbued with more meaning than the present, the spirit of the Romantics tells me to yearn for that unreachable time beyond my experience. It’s the same spirit that makes 20 year-old folks yearn for high-top sneakers, 8-bit graphics, 80s color palettes, and explains the otherwise unlikely appeal of Vapor-wave. These people are nostalgic for an era they were not present in the 1st time around. This is the same wavelength of wealthy aristocrats constructing pre-fabricated ruins on their properties in the 1800s, or the allure of pre-ripped jeans in the 1980s. This is the ghost of Romanticism waving at us across the seas of time.
My affinity for the more macabre is both aesthetic and a personal mystery. I was always drawn to the books/records/movies with the scary imagery, even as a very young child. By confronting fear and death, we familiarize ourselves with those things, and make our selves acquainted, if not friends outright. I am very afraid of death and my body breaking down, and so I nihilistically help the breakdown along, instead of staving it off. Psychologically I’m getting behind the wheel for a Freudian Death-Drive, instead of being a passive passenger. I struggle with it in a philosophical and practical way, and don’t recommend it! That’s about where my analysis of that fascination will have to end. I honestly have not thought about my predilection for the macabre in a long time, it’s just part of my make-up.
AA. Although “Ordinary Monsters” is quite heavy and industrial, its melodic violin makes it one of the most appealing songs on the album. The track is also one of the only songs containing a guest feature. To stray a bit from the song itself, I want to dwell on the point of “relations.” It seems like complex networks of artistic relations are almost inseparable from the world of hip hop. More personally, you seem to be very appreciative of the network of relations you’ve developed during your own creative life. The list of your collaborators is huge, not to mention that you’ve been roommates with k-the-i??? and a member of the incredible doom band Ocean. Your biggest collaboration, however, has been with the label Milled Pavement. How does Milled Pavement fit into rap’s various networks of artistic relations? What sort of support does Milled Pavement bring to its artists?
JC. I want to say 1st, that Moshe is the authority on what Milled Pavement is and isn’t, but since I’ve taken on the “#2” role about 5 years back, this is my take. Milled Pavement operates as more of an artist-collective than a label, and that’s been the way we’ve done things for a decade. MP has provided a point for digital and physical distribution under Moshe’s watchful eye for over 15 years. All of “your” favorite outré rappers have put out at least a song under the MP banner…barring any folks that emerged in the past few years. MP was formed out of necessity in the early 00s, in an era when an artist needed a label/crew/banner to rally behind, and we have a very particular pirate flag and branded name to compete. The majority of our 66 releases are one-offs with friends or artists that needed a proper home to launch their efforts from.
Track 11. “Lachrymimosa”
AA. One of the most striking things about “Lachrymimosa” is the way you reveal the versatility in delivery. Where does “flow” fit into the creative process? Does it come after you’ve written your lyrics and decided on a beat? Or, does the beat come first, then the flow, and then the lyrics?
JC. For this song, I was listening through a CD of productions (yes, I prefer CDs when possible…thank you and sorry to C $!) while driving through the mountains of Vermont, and I realized that this song was not quite “metal” enough to fit with the Vinyl Cape Glitter of Putrescence album C $ Burns and I were working on at the time….but the flow to the chorus hit me like lightning on that drive, and I had to pull over to write it down with “place-holder” words. The lyrics came later, the flow 1st. I often let the production inform the flow and lyrics, I don’t often graft a piece of pre-existing writing onto a song unless the fit is seamless. His scratch-title “Lachrymimosa” was kept and informed the lyrics and feel.
Track 12. “A World Where There is Only One of Everything”
AA. “A World Where There is Only One of Everything” is my favourite track on the “ENMITYVILLE.” It’s slow, heavy, protracted, difficult, but also funny. You begin, for example, with two comedic conflations of modern life with high art: “A selfie of Dorian Gray / Beatific fading / Swarm of fruit flies / left the still life out to wilt on pedestal.” It seems like a lot of people overlook the comedic aspects of your work. What effect do you hope comedy will bring to your art?
JC. This is one of my “favorite children” from this record as well. Gallows humor is my M.O., most certainly. You are the 1st to pick up on these lines, which I self-servingly laughed aloud at, when writing….but so few have come to the record armed with the proper reference points to “get it”, so I’m elated you dig it. It was put there for listeners like you.
Humor is a candy-coating on the bitter medicine in the lyrics, and humor is my only mild concession of “kid-gloves” when covering difficult ground. I enjoy the comedic. The humor in my music is not overt in the writing unless you are intently deconstructing the lyrics, but I often tell jokes or humorous day-to-day anecdotes between songs in a live situation. It acts as a pressure-release and lulls the room into a familiarity or false sense of security.
AA. I want to end with one last thought: Are you happy with “ENMITYVILLE”? Do you think it properly captures “BRZOWSKI” as he is at this moment in time? If you were suddenly unable to make music, would you be happy with “ENMITYVILLE” as your last effort?
JC. This is a cliché for many musicians at this point, but this is easily my favorite solo offering. I put in the time and picked over the minutiae with C $ Burns on the back-end and nothing is haphazard or unintentional. I was supremely smug about the Vinyl Cape record The Glitter of Putrescence last year, and think that it serves as a high-water mark of my writing and abilities to deliver something complex and stylistically multifaceted. ENMITYVILLE has in certain capacities surpassed it, in terms of a more personal statement, but held to the same self-flagellating standards of quality that C$ and I make for ourselves. This is as much his record as it is mine, with the outstandingly talented 80HRTZ as the close second. He stretches some inspirational canvases to paint on, and I’m eternally grateful. Halo, Renee, Mary, Mo, Nicole, Chryso, and everyone else that contributed are all irreplaceable. Glitter was about the Grand Downfall, ENMITY is the Personal Apocalypse. I approach every body of work as if it were my last chance at exposition. My last will and testament. I set the bar impossibly high in terms of Grand Statements. That’s why it took years to build. That’s why I scoff at quickly shat sketches that are passed off as albums. That’s why I’m hard-pressed to come up with “top 10/20” album-of-the-year lists when prodded. That’s why ENMITYVILLE is not for everyone, and it isn’t meant to be. Rome was not built on a day…but it was sacked in three. Taste is subjective, quality is irrefutable.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to unpack this project in a scholarly long-form fashion, and to hell with lazy listeners and lazy readers. Our creative lives are too short to cater to the Dumbs.
Header Image: BRZOWSKI live (2016). Photograph by David Višnjič.
Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review is an academic journal published by the University of British Columbia. Since its founding in 1959 by George Woodcock, the journal has become a leading one in the field of Canadian writings. Recently, Canadian Literature published an omnibus review I did on Genevieve Lehr’s “Stomata” (Brick Books, 2016), Alyda Faber’s “Dust or Fire” (Goose Lane Editions, 2016), and Laura Broadbent’s “In on the Great Joke” (Coach House Books, 2016). The article examines the ways in which these three poets push language to capture trauma, grief, empathy, and rapture.
“Poetry often tends toward the “unsayable”: the intensely personal or the radically spiritual. The poet stretches and strains language in his or her attempt to put these evasive subjects into words. But language is fragile. Words “slip, slide, [and] perish,” as T. S. Eliot writes, and frequently crack under the pressures of articulating the inarticulate. Three recent collections of poetry call on word, syntax, and form to perform in the domains where they most often break down: trauma and grief, empathy and rapture. While at times their poetry-making ends in banal sentiments or trite verse, at others, it reaches the unsayable with craft and sensitivity.”
You can find the article here. The review will reach print in the near future.
Header Image: “Lunker” (1997) by Peter Doig via Tate.
Review 31 is an online journal founded in 2011. Since then, it has gained recognition for hosting intelligent reviews of nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. Recently, Review 31 published my review of Les Murray’s On Bunyah (Carcanet, 2016). The article aims to create a full and coherent picture of Murray’s childhood home and his poetic responses to place.
“The rural home of poet, editor, and critic Les Murray lies around three hundred kilometres north-east of Sydney, Australia. The area known as Bunyah – a native word meaning ‘bark’ – is a hilly landscape with dense forests, expansive paddocks and farmland. Bunyah Creek, which becomes the Wang Wauk River before reaching the Pacific Ocean, cuts across this landscape and sources many of the sandy lakes characteristic of the area. The place Murray calls his ‘spirit country’ is unquestionably ‘the bush’: an area wild, undeveloped, remote, and isolated – only one gravel road runs from the Pacific Highway to Bunyah. The 82 poems and 29 photographs collected in On Bunyah give readers special access to this isolated area and makes clear its biographical and historical significances. The collection, made up of a selection of poems spanning Murray’s entire career, reveals just how Bunyah has provided the poet with the essential material of his verse for over 50 years. While On Bunyah does confirm what Murray writes in ‘Home Suite’ (originally published in 1992’s Translations from the Natural World) – ‘Home is the first / and final poem / and every poem between / has this mum home seam’ – it also does these poems an immense disservice: it presents them in a manner too careless to be worthy of their particular expressiveness and craft.”
In the interview below, Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac–otherwise known as k-the-i???–speaks of two “modes of creativity”: his “da Vinci code style” and his “exorcism form.” While the former is cryptic, difficult, and underground, the latter is personal, intuitive, and social. In k-the-i???’s music, these two modes of creativity clash to create a kind of paradoxical acoustic space: his music is at once chaotic and melodic, his lyrics both enigmatic and expressive. While holding these opposites in a tensional balance, his music–unable to handle its paradoxical elements–malfunctions, implodes, or glitches. k-the-i???’s musical mainframe, in other words, acts out as it becomes overloaded and unable to process the inputted information. The signs of these “glitch-moments” are the mechanical sounds of static, repeated loops, kaleidoscopic effects, industrial sounds, and sheer noise, all of which distort–delay, speed up, layer–a song’s lyrical and musical rhythms. At k-the-i???’s most experimental, the mainframe seems to take on a “de/form/ed” life of its own, glitching until it overtakes a song’s constructed rhythms and leaving it in near-ruins.
Meanwhile, the person of k-the-i??? presides over this domain–he remains in control.
To listen to k-the-i???’s music is to be presented with the difficult task of processing and decoding the information outputted by this overloaded and often malfunctioning machine. The procedure is not always pleasant and, while some listeners prefer to avoid the difficulties of k-the-i???’s music altogether, others find its difficulties the site of intrigue. For k-the-i???, intrigue in the face of difficulty is the first step towards an important ends: a “higher knowledge” hidden from “us” by our human nature, its illusions, and our general distaste for extended periods of introspection. k-the-i???’s music both simulates and stimulates the difficult experience of coming to understand (or at least struggle with) the hidden or the unknown. The process involves a confrontation with the conflicting experiences and emotions involved in being “human” and, in turn, to uncover an unsettling truth about reality: that, beyond the illusions of the human, the cosmos–including the human himself or herself–is really a computer-like mechanism.
The uncovering of this truth does not solve or settle, however. At one instance, to become aware of the computer-state liberates us from human illusions and constrictions. At another, it threatens us with its infinite and mechanical power. So, is such an end really worth the difficulties of the process? Well – listen…
Generally, listeners have been quiet–at least in a “written” context–about k-the-i???, his music, and the interpretive experience his songs and his persona invite. In the interview below, I ask k-the-i??? a few questions in an attempt to elucidate the nature of his musical output and his persona. His answers demand attention not only for the light they shed on the dark and difficult parts of his music, but also for their reflections on the nature of human experience in “the digital age.”
Emmanuel “Kiki” Ceac (aka k-the-i???) is a rapper, beat-maker, and producer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started making music in 1995 and eventually released two small-issue records: Teletron 1 (2003) and Fair Weather Under the Surface Negative (2004). He released his first studio album Broken Love Letter in 2006 to critical acclaim in rap’s underground. His follow up records Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (2008) and Synaesthesia (2011) were released by Mush Records and Fake Four, Inc. respectively. He has innumerable side-projects—including Youth:Kill and 1000 Apes in a Room—and collaborations. You can find him on: Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Instagram.
AA. We’ve heard the story of your name (cf. interview from 2011). It’s both personal and cryptic. Is the “hidden identity” or the “cryptic” a concept consciously at work in your music, your raps, or your persona?
KC. Most definitely it is. Being cryptic and personal is 100% my persona and it most definitely reflects in my music. In general I love making people think. On one end I’m personal and cryptic but I’m also a people person. Though I tend to be an open book sometimes I force you to read thoroughly until I allow you to move on to the next chapter. da Vinci code style lol.
AA. You have a massive discography, but a lot of your music is also very hard to find. You put your fans into a kind of never ending treasure hunt. Is this in any way a response to the over-accessibility of mainstream music, or to the mainstream’s tendency to give a select number of songs repeated airtime? Do you see yourself responding to the mainstream?
KC. Funny you say that. This is also a part of my da Vinci code element. Sometimes unintentionally I make my music limited and difficult to find unless it’s one of my major underground releases. Like…Broken Love Letter (Mush), Yesterday Today Tomorrow (Mush/Big Dada), Synesthesia (Fake Four). I will say this… I’m working on a series of 7 inch records that will be released limited but I plan to promote them and they’ll also be released digitally. Usually when I do a limited release I never allow them to gain any legacy. This time around they’ll be a full roll out of my limited releases (vinyl, digital, tshirts, stickers etc…). Not to mention I plan to re-release everything all in one place so that my fans find everything. As for the mainstream I feel like what I’m making now a days is more palatable to everyone even though everything my hardcore fans have grown to know me for and love is still applied to the craft. I guess my music is a little more mature. I was totally making music for a specific set of people when I was younger lol.
AA. What we know (for certain) is that you started in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, you were associated with “The Lost Channel,” “Rebel Alliance,” “Komadose,” among others. In the early 2000s, you moved to LA. Just by listening to your early recordings, it seems that, by the time you got to LA, your sound was already developed. Is this true? I mean, your musical output is insanely coherent—a k-the-i??? song is always recognizable as a k-the-i??? song. Your later stuff may be a bit more “precise” or, at times, “avant-garde” but that is all. Do you feel that, at any point, your music went through a drastic shift? Or is your musical trajectory based on a few ideas you’ve held from day one? If so, what are those ideas?
KC. I was associated with all those crews but Lost Channel and Komadose were some of my high school homies from Cambridge so it was more personal. I moved to LA early 2007 and by that time I felt way more developed and less random, because at one point of time my verses were so avant-garde and weird that the direction of my lyrics were random and had no direction what so ever. Just free flying complex poetry on beat. My music changed but remains to have its core still intact. So I wouldn’t say drastic but I no longer rap about ninjas, robots and aliens. Well not as much as I used to and if I do I mask it way better.
AA. What is your creative-process like? In one song you mention that “you wrote this in five minutes.”; yet, in an interview, you mention that your music tends to “build” meaning over time. Do you start “intuitively” or in a rapid state of creation and then hope your work picks up meaning (slowly and overtime) after its completion? How do songs start and end for you? What about lyrics?
KC. It depends on mood, spurt of thought, and emotion. I read a lot, I watch a lot of documentaries, movies, etc… So I have a bunch of stored information. Sometimes thoughts spew out of my mind at light speed. These are the days it’s pretty much a written freestyle and I let my body take over. I call this my exorcism form lol. Not really but you get the concept.And other days my mind is relaxed and I just dive deep into my subconscious to create crafted verses that are way more in depth. Musically sometimes I do the writing first then make the beat and match it or other times I create the beat first or already been given the beat and allow the beat to guide. My creative process changes all the time. I’m just now noticing how weird that is. Haha.
AA. The song “kollidoscope” has an almost mythic story-arc. You (or your persona) goes from “you’re driving me crazy / let me out / I’m held captured / locked in myself, vortex” to “my eyes are more open now with three-dimensional scenery / a liquid-based polygon, computerized entity.” You seem to suggest that “freedom” comes with a transformation from “human” to “computer.” As I mention in my introduction, the “personal” and “human” in your music is often associated with confusion and conflict, while the “computerized” and “alien” represents a freedom from those human difficulties. Are you, in fact, employing this mythic story-arc in your work? What do you find in the computer-world that is different from the human?
KC. When I look at the computer world compared to human world it runs opposite in contrary to most people’s belief. Mind you I wrote kaleidoscope my senior year of high school in 1997 way before movies like TheMatrix stated the world we live in isn’t real. I kind of always felt that way since I can remember being able to remember. In 1997 I think reality really hit me and I started noticing that it’s not about just living your life any longer and that we’re about to switch to a technically advanced world where they’re going to start programming us and we’re not even going to notice it, but I noticed it all and it upset me. Not to even sound crazy I remember experiencing weird signs of euphoria that would allow me to see things that weren’t there. As if an entity from a parallel dimension warns me and feeds me knowledge. All my research reflects within my music. Basically my senses are always on alert and open. The conflict between the digital, the spiritual, the multidimensional has always been an everyday battle for me. The computer world is the truth, the actual world that we’re living in, while the human world is the complete opposite and just plays the role of a shell for the computerized world.
AA. In an ‘a capella’ rendition of your verse from “kollidoscope,” you mention that the song is a kind of experiment in language. “This is my vision of words [through] a kaleidoscope,” you say. Can you explain a bit about what that means? What are you doing with language that makes it “kaleidoscope-like”?
KC. It’s a language to the other side,as well as the understanding in what he hides. There are many layers and in all actuality it shows that the rabbit hole is to be infinite. The language and understanding that when someone says something it is more in depth then what it appears to be on the outside. Hence how people who let my music grow on them tend to have a different understanding of a song of mine 5 years later because the language was layered and coded. And like we, all kaleidoscopes turn, rotate, show angles, are layered, as well as colorful but here is the thing… What you see inside isn’t what is actually on the outside.
AA. My impression of your idea of “words through a kaleidoscope” is a kind of “glitching” on rhyme. The turning of a kaleidoscope seems akin to a series of mental associations precipitated by rhyme. Here are some lines from “Lead the Floor”: “Correct me if I was meant to attend Hailey’s Comet / No comet comment concurred referred validating maintenance / It hasn’t been the same since / Before the bulldozer moved over the hands of time to obtain / You couldn’t look under a rock to find history of my name.” Each line doesn’t really stand alone. Instead, each line “flows” into each other by means of “rhyming sounds” more so than by your own agency or control: “comet” leads you to “comment” and you don’t really have much say in the matter. The process is almost computerized, or automatized rather than it is existential or expressive of a process of “individual genius.” Am I getting close to your take on rhyme and “words through a kaleidoscope”?
KC. Yes totally my dude. You just narrowed it down and understand – as metaphorical as words through a kaleidoscope may appear, there’s so much truth to the core of the matter. Like really…We say we can trace our lineage but what if our lineage is a lie and we come from an unknown planet? We’d have to rethink life. This is a different subject but I feel like there’s more to the beginning of humanity then the theory of 2 rocks colliding creating life. I feel like someone is not telling us everything but I’m starting to be infused with knowledge.
AA. Your music is futuristic and genre-defying, but its also in heavy dialogue with the culture and traditions of rap. “Glitched-out” sounds will often clash with classic boom-bap beats. Is this the result of you putting your influences together, in a mish-mash? Does this confluence reflect your own tastes in music? Are you consciously putting your influences together in your music, or does your sound just “come to you”?
KC. Totally!!! I’m a genre clasher. I’ll mix together what I feel will make sense from all sounds of music and my influences or sometimes – it’s just cool random record finds to be used in my music. It comes to me as well. Digging for records attaches that element. Sometime I buy records from artist I know since I have a large understanding of all genres from the 50’s on and sometimes I buy records that have awesome covers and just hope it’s good. And for the record I can sample and use anything. Like anything!!!
AA. On the topic of the tradition of rap, you often collaborate some heavy hitters in the world of rap. From myka 9 to busdriver and nocando (of Good Life, Project Blowed legacy); and from Bigg Jus to Orko and Thavius Beck. I’m especially interested in the tradition that comes out of the Good Life/Project Blowed. Can you tell me a bit about working with those guys and how they contributed to your musical vision?
KC. Being from the east coast there wasn’t many west coast artist that influenced me growing up aside from NWA, Hieroglyphics, and The Good Life/Project Blowed homies. So when I moved to LA I reached out to a few of the homies to collaborate since at this time we’ve gained respect for each other and built individual relationships with a few of the homies. Working with these dude came easier for me than most.It was almost like I was from LA. Everyone took me in with open arms. I’ve did short run tours with Aceyalone, Myka 9, Abstract Rude in Germany (2010), I met NoCanDo and Kail in 2003 at Scribble Jam. A gang of us rappers were staying in the same hotel (Budget Host) and I remember being the only rapper not jumping in cyphers and I can clearly remember NoCan asking me if I rapped I told him I did and he asked me to kick a verse. I did. He was impressed. He kicked a verse. I was impressed. We were cool immediately. I was a black weirdo rapper from out of no where. Cambridge Massachusetts at that. Weirdo black MC’s were a thing back then… we were deep, lol. Met Busdriver in 2006 at SXSW playing the Mush Records showcase with him. So I, as you see, throughout the years I built individual relationships with a gang of the homies so when I moved to LA working with them just seemed right. These dude contributed to my records by adding the element of styling… I was making abstract shit and the only set of cats that were as abstract as myself that understand what I was doing was The Blowed.
AA. The “Youth:Kill” project is especially experimental. Are there any particular ideas you’re working with on this project? It’s absolutely incredible stuff.
KC. I love that project. Last year we recorded a 15 minute song with my homie OptimisGfn but we lost the file. It was about to be released on vinyl. But I’m always with Walter Gross when I’m in Berlin so we’re planning at some point in time to sit down and make something. We’ve done improv shows people really loved so people really like the Youth:Kill sound and energy and I feel like we should create new music when we can. Funny thing is I’m on my way to Berlin to his new place as I’m writing this lol.
AA. “Glitching” seems to have a dual function in your work. On the one hand it is a kind of means to be humble yourself. In “Electrobug” you say: “wait for her / To apply data / Oriental it / Must be in my mental operating system / Glitching / I’m not completely / That mad.” Your conflicted emotional state, here, is figured as a kind of “glitch” in your mental operating system. On the other hand, your “glitching” teaches. It demands a heightened attention from your listeners, a real concentration. The listeners need to adjust themselves to these difficult forms of sonic communication. Can you define “glitching” and your understanding of its function?
KC. Glitches were major for me then. I just couldn’t get over the emotional depression so I looked at it like a flaw in my system. Not be able to get over an emotion, stressful or a depressive situation was considered an error to functionality. I would eventually get over things but the second I’m reminded of the mishap here come them glitches, system shutdown, and socially antisocial mode is initiated. And once operational I need to avoid diving deeper within my subconscious. I’m a heavy thinker. Glitching out wasn’t the healthiest. Everyone should be aware of the way they operate. I’ve studied my actions so I’m well aware and informed enough to relay the message to the masses. Refrained from system failure by properly scanning my data base for errors.
AA. With the popularity of groups like Death Grips and clipping, do you think there’s more room for the kind of music you’re creating? Will you forever be underground?
KC. Funny you say that. As far as performance goes, rap wise I get compared to Death Grips. I think it has a lot to do with that the aggressive energy. I was asked to open up for Clipping last year in Hamburg, Germany. To me it’s all with marketing. And content creation. Hard works pays off. I’ve been in no rush to become an industry dude. Respect from my peers goes a long way with me and I’m respected by them all. To be honest though… this year and so on I’ll be putting in major work to get my music to more people so we’ll see what happens. I thinks it’s officially time to upgrade my legacy. I’m ready to remove myself from the depths of the basement and replace it with a sliver of the attic. Then we can work on rooftops. I’ve built my foundation a while ago so yeah… it’s time.
AA. Lastly, anything you want to plug?
KC. First of all, thank you for reaching out. I am working on some newness that I can’t officially plug until the paper work is concrete but be aware that I’m working and you’ll notice a series of content, music, videos, podcasts, and so forth this year so if anything… Just stay tuned in. Peacers.
In the 2017 calendar year, me and two other PhD students convened the Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature Graduate Seminar for the English Department at the University of Cambridge. The role involved inviting speakers, preparing a calendar of events, and hosting the speakers. Below you can find more information about the Graduate Seminar events:
Review 31 is an online journal founded in 2011. Since then, it has gained recognition for hosting intelligent reviews of nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. Recently, Review 31 published my review of Alex Wong’s Poems without Irony (Carcanet, 2016). The article navigates the difficulties of Wong’s first collection by focusing on the formal aspects of its poems and considering its moral demands on the reader.
“…though the collection does not gratify, explain, or solve, it does ultimately ‘respect’. Poems without Irony never devalues its readers; its poems rarely speak from the perspective of someone who has ‘something to say.’ The poet does not treat his readers as unlearned, unwise, or – as is common in much contemporary literature – either entertainment-hungry or coldly academic. Instead, Wong tries his best to give himself up to the disinterested (but complex) zone of art and culture. Though labyrinthine, this zone of art is a possible site for ‘humane’ interaction: a real sympathy or even empathy between writer and reader. To fail to return the efforts of the poet (so clear in his poetry), then, seems like a moral misstep.”