This week L.A. Letters picks up where last week left off -- with city songs or poems. Multi-instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding's ode to Portland, "City of Roses," pays tribute to her home with the same verisimilitude that Besskepp conveyed about Stockton. One of the most talented and versatile musicians alive, Spalding sings angelically and plays both the electric and upright bass. Classically trained at the Berklee College of Music, she's already won a Grammy, sang at the Oscars and toured from Amsterdam to Tokyo. Nonetheless her new album "Radio Music Society" finds her reminiscing about Portland. "City of Roses" is truly heartfelt -- the first eight lines really capture the allure of Portland:
Weren't rainy days that might seem bleak
Our rain is the paint that makes the land lush and the folks unique
City parks, wild berries, and old bridges
Rolling river bringing goods to and from the sea
A mountain hooded in snow silently watching over me
And Anywhere I go these roots are with me, and I find,
I take along a little piece of heaven, with these memories of mine
Her voice, the song's melody and the poignant lyrics capture Portland's ethos to a T. I especially identify with the line, "And anywhere I go these roots are with me, and I find, I take along a piece of heaven with these memories of mine." With our memories of home we take a piece of heaven with us wherever we go. She got me thinking about the countless songs celebrating L.A.
Dozens of popular songs have been written about Los Angeles, including Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.", Frank Zappa's "Trouble Every Day", the Red Hot Chili Peppers "Under the Bridge", the Eagles "Hotel California", Tupac's "To Live & Die in L.A.", X's "Los Angeles", the Doors, "L.A. Woman", Frank Sinatra's "L.A. is my Lady", Joni Mitchell's "Ladies in the Canyon", Missing Person's "Walking in L.A.", Sublime's "April 29, 1992", Ry Cooder's catalog, especially the album, "Chavez Ravine", NWA's "Straight Outta Compton", Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and hundreds of songs by the Beach Boys, War, Los Lobos, Guns n Roses, the Go-go's, Beck, Motley Crue, Tom Petty, Barry White and so many more.
Scenes like Central Avenue jazz, the L.A. the cool school, surf punk, Chicano soul, California soul, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, Sunset Strip hair metal, South Bay punk, gangsta rap, underground hip hop, garage bands, the emerging dubstep scene -- there have been so many critical movements of L.A. music over the last 50 years.
A great starting point to learn about the breadth of Los Angeles music can be found in the excellent book, "Waiting for the Sun" by Barney Hoskyns. Hoskyns catalogs the sound of Los Angeles up until the 1992 Riots. Published in 1996, most of the artists and movements mentioned above are covered extensively in his 350 page tome. Inevitably though, there are several younger musicians that have made their mark since his book was published. One of them is the Breakestra.
Formed in 1997, Breakestra's contribution to the sound of Los Angeles over the last 15 years is undeniable. Formed by multi-instrumentalist Music Man Miles Tackett and joined shortly thereafter by vocalist Mixmaster Wolf, the Breakestra's skill at covering fundamental funk breaks educated a generation of listeners on hip hop's connection to funk, jazz/fusion and soul.
Breakestra began at a coffeehouse jam session called the Breaks on La Brea, when Miles organized a group of players to play a set of funk classics. He recalls, "I basically would just dig into my vaults of tapes I had been given by my record collector friend Tony Sherman, or heard on mix tapes by DJs like Mixmaster Wolf, Romanowski, J Rocc and Cut Chemist, and then put a set together based on what felt good musically -- the same way I'd hear them do their thing with the wax." The Breakestra combines the spirit of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter era with hip hop, funk and soul. Tackett's father is a founding member of the seminal 70s group Little Feat.
Many of L.A.'s finest musicians have played with the Breakestra, including keyboardist Carlos Guaico of the Rebirth/Rootdown; guitarist Damon Aaron; horn player Geoff Gallegos aka Double G, founder of Dakah; guitarist Dan Ubick, founder of Connie Price & the Keystones; Todd Simon of Antibalas, drummer Josh Cohen and Dave Chegwidden of Rhythm Roots. Former Keyboardist Guaico says, "Playing with the Breakestra is a great way to get your degree in funk."
Among Breakestra's four albums, one song in particular, "Hit the Floor" is a quintessential L.A. song for its mix of storytelling and swinging melody. Mixmaster Wolf croons about L.A. traffic over an extra funky track, navigating through the 405 and 101. "I saw the 405 and rolled right on past, 'cuz the 405 -- can kiss my ass!" Combining humor and earned L.A. wisdom, Wolf runs down the backstreets, capturing the spirit of L.A. zooming. "Had to hit the floor, had to hit the floor!" The song's excitement matches the feeling of city speeding. Tackett and Mixmaster Wolf are both L.A. natives and their music communicates California soul with the same swagger as their heroes James Brown, Bobby Womack and Rufus Thomas.
In columns to come, I will discuss and dissect more L.A. songs. There's a treasure trove.
On a quick note, "For the Record," a documentary on the World Famous Beat Junkies DJ crew premieres this week. Founded in Cerritos in 1992, the Beat Junkies have been as influential to DJing and turntablism as Dogtown was with skate boarding. I haven't covered much film in L.A. Letters, but four stellar documentaries recently fell in my lap and each deserves mention.
LA MENU MUNCHIES is a dynamic video poetry of food, story and digital portraiture created by L.A.'s longest running inter-ethnic arts collective, Collage Ensemble Inc. Produced in 2006 by L.A. natives Alex Alferov, Mona Kasra and Alan Nakagawa, this documentary is a collection of episodes that use food as a metaphor for the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and the city's cultural fabric. Crenshaw District native, Alan Nakagawa started Collage Ensemble in 1984. Producing art shows, live music and performance art, he's worked with almost 200 artists. Nakagawa was an undergraduate at OTIS when it was across from MacArthur Park. Later he got his Master of Arts at UCI. For the last 20 years, he's worked for MTA's Art Department helping to coordinate station artists. His L.A. knowledge is why he's made such an offbeat experimental film that predated the L.A. food craze.
Some of the clips are cultural history about the origins of a particular dish such as the fascinating segment on the history of okonomiyaki. Others are montages, collages: Russian Easter, Persian New Year, fresh spring rolls and the process of making pho. There's a story on the South Central Farm just before it was closed. One particularly artful segment features photos of iconic L.A. eateries like the Apple Pan, Brite Spot, El Cholo, El Tepeyac, Harold & Belle's, Pink's, Mr. Ramen, Palermo's and countless more. Nakagawa says, "You are what you eat and this is the city of Los Angeles."
POETRY IN MOTION, directed by Ron Mann, is an out of print 1982 documentary that features segments on 24 leading North American poets including Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Ted Berrigan, Ntozake Shange, Jim Carroll, William Burroughs, Miguel Algarin and others. I'd read about it for years and chanced upon a used copy recently at Amoeba. It's been called the "Woodstock of Poetry." Intertwining a mix of poets performing and insightful interviews, this 90 minute film celebrates the oral tradition and also foreshadows the rise of performance and slam poetry in the 1990s. The raw footage contained herein will inspire any connoisseur of the word whether it's a clip of Bukowski ruminating on his writing process or Amiri Baraka reciting with a wicked drummer.
ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN is a compelling 90 minute documentary into Africa and the Middle East in the search of the origins of language. Holman is a longtime New York poet and known for his ability to connect people and communities. He's the founder of the celebrated Bowery Poetry Club in NYC. Upon hearing that over half of the world's 6500 languages will disappear, Holman decided to document poets and storytellers in locales around the world. Divided into three 30 minutes episodes, he educates and entertains. In West Africa he meets the griots -- the poets, storytellers, musicians and genealogists that preserve the West African oral tradition. In Israel, Holman meets with Israelis and Palestinians and discusses the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew. Short poetic bursts are weaved within the narrative. Holman engages the locals with respect, consideration and he listens to their stories.
BIG FUN IN THE BIG TOWN is an amazing documentary that is finally available in America commercially after 25 years. Directed by Dutch filmmaker and music journalist Bram Van Splunteren, this film is a must-have for old school hip hop fans because it features never seen before candid footage of LL Cool J when he still lived at his grandmother's, Run DMC at their peak, the first gangster rapper Schooly D, Biz Markie, Doug E. Fresh and Grandmaster Flash mixing records in his living room. Van Splunteren came to New York City in 1986 for a week and filmed a truly epic period of hip hop. Released in Holland in 1987, it never made it to the US other than by bootleg. The candid interviews and live performances present hip hop in its purest light. Old school fans will lose their minds.
From Stockton to Portland, Africa, Israel, New York and back to L.A., it's all the same. Geography and the built environment form the landscape of our dreams. Celebrating and critiquing specific landscapes through songs, poems and filmmaking encourages necessary dialogue. Esperanza Spalding reminds, "I take along a little piece of heaven, with these memories of mine." Stay tuned for more in the next dispatch of L.A. Letters.
Top: Image taken from Breakestra's album "Hit the Floor."