Film Review :: Rebel Music

[Legacy Content]

Premiere Date: November 18, 2013 (mtvU)

After stumbling across a random tweet several weeks ago referencing a new documentary series entitled Rebel Music, I set off to learn more. I was able to gain access to the first two episodes of the series that will premier on mtvU next Monday.

The series describes itself as “a thought-provoking new documentary series about musicians and artists in areas of conflict” that will consist of six, thirty-minute episodes that will air over the course of five weeks (the first two episodes will premier together). The brain-child of MTV World Sr. Vice President, Nusrat Durrani, Rebel Music boasts the support of acclaimed artist Shepard Fairey (executive producer/art-director), and Academy Award Winner Ross Kaufman (Born into Brothels, consulting producer). A team of directors and cinematographers from around the world have brought Durrani’s vision to reality.

The first two episodes, Egypt and Afghanistan, took me by surprise. I was expecting to see artist profiles, hear music, and touch on a little bit of their social struggle on a personal level. What I experienced, however, were a variety of stories woven together by the contexts in which they occurred. That is to say, the social and political struggles of the countries overshadowed the individual artists. This was neither a good nor bad thing – just different than what I expected.

The Egypt episode was filmed during the height of the 2013 Revolution. Whether this was planned or a fortuitous bit of happenstance, this gave the episode a huge dose of immediacy.  The episode features rapper Karim Adel (aka Rush), singer/songwriter Ramy Essam, and Nariman El Bakry a local music promoter. We follow these protesters between their studios, performance spaces, and protests in Tahrir Square. The two sides at odds are the youth who want a greater voice in the future of their country and the adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood who are cast less as a religious sect and more as political group.

Conversely, in the Afghanistan episode, the sides at odds are more disparate – an aggressive Muslin leadership and those who would challenge their rule (or the rule of Allah). In this episode, our rebels along with their families are threatened with death for their dissent. And yet, in the midst of this, they continue to press forward. We see the heavy metal band District Unknown abandon the masks they had been utilizing to hide their identities. Sosan Firooz, the first female rapper in Afghanistan travels to California to speak at a TEDx event. And a young female documentarian purchases a bicycle (something that is only acceptable for men).

What struck me the most in each of these episodes was the artists love of their respective countries. They were not the beleaguered refugees looking for a chance to escape. They were madly in love with their homelands. In fact, Farooz laments her own homesickness in a hotel room during her visit to the U.S. saying, “I said I would never leave Afghanistan” and “I miss it like I miss my mother.”

These are the profiles that we rarely see at all, and certainly never see on the news. The filmmakers have done an incredible job in finding a connection point between the cultures (music and film) and using it to inform us in a relevant way. If I had one complaint, it would be that the two episodes felt a little formulaic in how similarly they were structured. Also, the advances that I watched had place-holders at the end for “Where are they now” footage. I would have loved to see that, but that’s just the nature of the advance screener.

Tune in to mtvU Monday nights at 9pm ET/PT between Nov. 18 and Dec. 16 to see all 6 episodes. Learn more at


Interview :: Pentatonix

With their new record (PTX Vol. 2) now available, Mitch Grassi (seated with silver tie) of Pentatonix was kind enough to take a few minutes to let me know what’s been going on with the group since their rise to fame on NBC’s The Sing Off.


Ryan: It’s been a while since you won Season Three of The Sing Off. I’m sure that life has changed a little bit since then. What are some of the biggest changes and most exciting moments between then and now?

Mitch: I think the most exciting part is just seeing so much of the world. I’ve always wanted to travel, I love that part of my job is traveling around the country and sometimes performing internationally! We’ve also met some pretty amazing people along the way, including our wonderful & supportive fans.

Ryan: Your group is very diverse. How does that diversity influence the music that you make and the fans that you are able to reach?

Mitch: Well first and most obvious, we are very ethnically different. We come from a slew of different backgrounds, and I think that’s one reason why we appeal to so many different types of people. We also have wildly different music tastes, which has helped shape our sound, and has allowed us to experiment with a number of different genres.

Ryan: PTX Vol. 2 is out now and it seems like you’ve brought more originals than ever before. How does it feel to be able to introduce the world to your own music?

Mitch: It’s an amazing feeling, really. But it’s also incredibly vulnerable! I would say we are all pretty new to writing original music, so it’s definitely been pretty scary. However, we’ve grown so much as musicians and writers, so I think our music has progressed on its own. We truly hope our audience enjoys the original material, because they’ve been so fun to work on!

Ryan: When it comes to creating such intricate arrangements, what does that process look like? Do you chart everything out? Do you just work through it vocally until it feels right? Does one person take the lead in arranging?

Mitch: We typically arrange in a sort of “jam session” fashion. Avi will start with the chord progression for the musical foundation of the song, and whoever sings the solo will sing the melody over that. Then we just experiment with background parts to complement the soloist. Kevin usually comes up with his insane beats on his own; he’s very musically intuitive.

Ryan: Obviously your appearances on national television have garnered you a lot of fans, but you’ve been able to build on that and keep those fans close using technology, specifically YouTube. What can you say about the intentionality of using that medium to keep new content coming and staying connected to your fans?

Mitch: The social media aspect of our career has been essential to our success. Our fans truly feel like they can connect with us musically and personally. We really think it’s important that our fan base stays current with us; we love having them on this journey with us.

Pentatonix: PTX Vol. 2

Release Date: November 5, 2013

Like many of their fans, I fell in love with Pentatonix from the first time I saw them on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off (which they won). I’ve always been a fan of great vocal groups and had really had my ears opened to the possibilities of a capella music from the previous season of the show. From the outset, though, Pentatonix stood apart from the rest. Other groups were typically made up of as few as 7 or as many as 20+ singers – Pentatonix 5 members suggested a far more “minimalist” approach. The sound that they created, however, was bigger than most of their peers. Their arrangements were innovative, complicated, and unexpected. Simply put, they blew me away.

It’s been a couple of years since the show and in that time they’ve released an EP (PTX vol. 1) and a Christmas EP (PTXmas) and have toured extensively. While they may not be in rotation on the radio, they’ve garnered a strong following online with their videos regularly receiving multi-million views on YouTube. In fact, this past weekend their collaboration with another YouTube sensation, Mindy Stirling earned the “Response of the Year” award at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards. Their cover of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons has received more than 41 million views.

PTX vol. 2 starts out – in my opinion – on a bad foot with its weakest track, a cover of Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us.” While the group has a phenomenal sound, they feel a little too sugary sweet to deliver with the same heart of the original. While I’m not the biggest fan of Mac’s delivery, his white-boy-from-Seattle style carries on a little bit better than the white kids from Texas rapping. But good news: that’s the only bad track on the record.

When a group is predominantly known for cover songs, their originals can seem a bit inferior – not the case, here. Starting with track 2, “Natural Disaster”, the band shows that they can stand on their own two feet. Lead vocalist Scott Hoying punches through with the fervor lacked on the first track. Backing vocals taking on a gospel choir-like tone. The breakdown highlights the amazing bass of Avi Kaplan and makes you wish you had a massive subwoofer on your stereo.

Far and away the best track on the record is another original, “Run to You”. Perhaps because it’s a palette cleanser, perhaps because it is so completely different than anything I’ve ever heard from them, I absolutely love this track. No beats, no atmospherics, just singing voices from all five members. I’ve never had any doubt about any of these performers, but for anyone who might think that it’s just a lot of noises and a schtick, this track should wipe away all questions.

They follow up “Run to You” with its polar opposite, a medley of Daft Punk. I’ve never been a fan of Daft Punk, but enough of it is familiar to me that I can enjoy it. The performance itself is incredible. Each member has an opportunity to shine without feeling as though they are pulled away from the rest of the group. It is quintessential PTX.

On the whole, this is a fantastic record – even if it is a little short (3 tracks are 3:01 or less). I would have loved to hear “Royals” on here, which they released to iTunes as a single. In my opinion, that would have been a perfect pre-order bonus track or something. Mitch Grassi kills it on that track. I posted the video a few days ago, check it out below. Also, come back tomorrow for a brief Q&A that I got to do with Mitch.

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: November 5, 2013

Holy Crap! Of the rap records I’ve listened to this year, this is the one I had the lowest expectations for. When Yeezy and Jay have failed me – and I’m just not on that Macklemore tip – the champ comes back to reclaim his title belt. Who’d have thought that the most old school rapper in  the game would be the white guy from Detroit?

In my estimation, Jay Z has become a bit soft. He may talk a big game and, yeah, I wouldn’t want to cross him. But his previous claim I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man has proven itself untrue. As I mentioned before, it seems like Kanye just wants to prove himself to himself, a battle he’ll never win. Meanwhile, everybody acts like they forgot about Dre. So here stands Marshall Mathers who (it feels like) makes music because he enjoys doing it and is looking for a healthy outlet for his aggression. He stays out of the news and lives his life as a 41-year-old (!) artist on his own terms.

His last album Recovery (2010) was a revelation and featured some of his best work up until that point. His verses on “No Love” (even though the track featured Lil Wayne) were nothing short of brilliant. “Love the Way You Lie” reached a level of popularity up there with “Lose Yourself”. He could have called it quits and ended his career on top. Instead, he took 3 years to craft a new masterpiece.

The album opens with “Bad Guy”, a sequel to the mega-hit “Stan” from the original Marshall Mathers LP. On it, the rapper portrays Stan’s brother exacting revenge on Eminem for dissing his brother. It’s an aggressive kick off to an aggressive record and at multiple times there are distinct shades of Dr. Dre in the vocals. The female vocal on the opener lacks the iconic nature of Dido’s work on its predecessor. That tone, however, is really prevalent on track 6, “Legacy”.

There are insane samples all over this album beginning with the 1968 track “Time of the Season” by The Zombies on “Rhyme or Reason”. While the lyrics seem directed at Shady’s absent father, there are a number of references to Jay-Z sprinkled throughout. Plus, he wraps as Yoda!?!? Another classic sample is on “Love Game” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) which is layered over the 1965 hit “The Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.

The singles, “Survival” and “Berzerk” have a great intensity while still being mainstream-oriented. It feels, however, that they lack the same emotional depth as other songs on the record. The third single, however, is on its own level. What can I say about “Rap God” that hasn’t already been said? Lyrically, it maybe isn’t the strongest piece, but it showcases the performer as being in a class by himself. (For the uninitiated, Em raps 95 words in 15 seconds as part of the 6+ minute long track.)

Disclaimer: Cursing in this video has been edited out. Still contains offensive content.

Finally, perhaps the best track on the album is its penultimate, “Headlights” (featuring Nate Ruess of .fun). It’s rare that you hear an artist disavow their own work, but Marshall does just that here. Saying that in his younger days he maybe didn’t think things through before he said them and that his 2005 song “Cleaning Out My Closet” he went a little too far, he claims that he no longer performs the song and cringes when it comes on the radio. He gives us the deepest of looks into his personal life and childhood painting most vivid pictures of being kicked out of his house, seeing his brother get taken away by CPS, and regretting that his daughters don’t know their grandmother. He doesn’t erase all that he’s gone through, but he displays an understanding of why things were the way they were.

I’ve never been a raving fan of Eminem. The content can be a little too much for me. Still, I have mad respect for what he can do and how he does it. It’s easy to find unapologetic artists in any genre, but most of them don’t have the skills to back it up. Whether it’s “Guilty Conscience” (1999), “The Way I Am” (2000), “Lose Yourself” (2002), “Won’t Back Down” (2010), or “Rhyme or Reason” (2013) the man just keeps innovating and pushing himself and coming back stronger than before.