Brian Whitney
This Way for the Gas

Let’s Get Dressed

By - Mar 31st, 2010 10:28 pm

Brian thought “Charge of the Light Brigade” was an appropriate image for his first column. Hey, why not. –DJ (painting by Caton Woodville)

I’m going to kick this column off with an earnest discussion of Milwaukee, both in terms of its music scene and the city itself. Recently, a debate was waged between Milwaukee rapper Dana Coppafeel and Onion city editor Steven Hyden. In an interview that ran March 11, Coppafeel makes some general assertions about the Milwaukee hip hop scene, and in particular expressed frustration at the type of coverage Milwaukee hip-hop receives from local newspapers. That kind of frustration is perfectly understandable coming from someone who’s been performing since 1995, yet is only releasing their first solo album this month. Making music is easy; getting people to listen to it is usually pretty difficult. I empathize with Coppafeel, but at the same time, it’s what you do with your disappointment that matters. Complaining in an interview with a cultural magazine that cultural magazines ignore you is, on its surface, more than a little contradictory, and sets him up for an easy dismissal.

Hyden’s editorial reply seems to miss the point. He makes a couple of cheap stock jokes (including a Leno-esque TOYOTA joke!) about lazy writers and somehow ties band Myspace pages into the discussion. I apologize if it’s asking too much of an editor of an Arts/Culture magazine to actually research the city’s performers beyond rudimentary Google searches, but, well, it’s your job. There’s a difference between “writing about music” and “posting a concert calendar with band bios”. A good cultural publication should be able to document what matters, and show why those things should matter. Neither side deserves all the blame, both sides deserve some; playing at Stonefly or wherever once a month without touring/releasing new material isn’t going to get you anywhere beyond being a big fish in a small pond, but the kind of press we produce shapes people’s impressions of those cultural contributions. It all ties back into why both people that live here (and, for that matter, people that don’t live here) make assumptions about this city and what it can do. It’d be nice to prove people wrong but few seem to be willing to step up to the plate, and those that really want to make a serious cultural contribution often leave.

Look no further than this MilwaukeeUP blog post about the state of the hip hop union. Right there, in the second paragraph: “Haz Solo…has left Milwaukee to sincerely pursue the dream.” This isn’t to say that Haz Solo tells people he’s from the Chicago suburbs now, nor do all of his songs have to be about Milwaukee. Cities like Memphis (Three 6 Mafia), Houston (Pimp C/UGK) and Atlanta (Ludacris/Gucci Mane) have all been able to put rappers on the national map. Timbaland and the Neptunes are both from Virginia Beach, not to mention Clipse. It hasn’t happened here yet, but it could, if Milwaukee were to have a clearly designed style that couldn’t be found elsewhere. No disrespect to House of M and groups of that ilk, who are skilled MCs, but Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) came out in 1993. It’s a legendary album, but it’s time to do something a little different. I mean, even Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein is almost ten years old and everyone was on them for biting Wu Tang when that came out. House of M has talent, but they need to find and develop their own voice. Making music that sounds like other music doesn’t help to change stereotypes about Milwaukee or put it on the map. It’s important for an artist to have reference points at first, but at some point you have to shed them and start being yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point? Milwaukee rock bands could stand to hear this criticism too: “Our new record sounds like The Who” should be grounds for dissolution.

Obviously, the Midwest operates at a severe cultural disadvantage compared to either coast (yes, even you, Chicago). It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to change overnight, or even in a generation or two. I recently spent a long weekend in New York City visiting some old friends. Some were unable to even figure out what state Milwaukee was in (one, in particular, kept asking me what I did in Minnesota.) Others who knew I was involved in the music scene here asked me how it compared to the New York area. My answer was that Milwaukee’s music scene is like that kid in college who goes to all his classes in his pajamas; comfortable, sure, but not getting anywhere. You can see it in the bands of 30-somethings playing at Cactus Club for their friends (who always make sure to leave before the touring bands start), or the fact that the most nationally well known Milwaukee artists are the ones that few care about in town and spend most of their time performing elsewhere (here’s looking at you, Juiceboxxx.)

Really, it’s up to all of us. You can’t stay in those pajamas forever; at some point you have to get dressed.

Categories: Other-views

0 thoughts on “This Way for the Gas: Let’s Get Dressed”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Brian:

    Thanks for writing about our interview with Dana Coppafeel and my response re: tips for local musicians on how to publicize themselves. It’s always great when a story on AV Club Milwaukee can generate discussion, even if it proves critical of what we do.

    Re: what you’ve written here, I don’t know what makes me cringe more: you calling me “Leno-esque” or your somewhat disingenuous assertion that we don’t do more than “rudimentary Google searches” when it comes to covering local music.

    Do you really believe that? Really? We wrote about your band, didn’t we? I don’t recall you or anybody else from your band bashing down our doors, begging for coverage. We did it because we wanted to, because one of our writers (Erin Wolf, who I’m sure you know) took the initiative. Most of the time when it comes to local music stories, it’s US reaching out to musicians, not the other way around. We do it because we love local music. Could we do a better job? Sure. All I was pointing out in my blog was that musicians can often do more to make it easier for writers to find out about them.

    You have every right to take issue with the quality of our music coverage. But can we dispense with the “I apologize if it’s asking too much of an editor of an Arts/Culture magazine to actually research the city’s performers” garbage? As someone who works for a local music website, you know that there is no such thing as a monolithic “music media,” right? Practically every music writer in this town is freelancer, writing in their spare time because their passionate. I disagree that “few seem willing to step up to the plate.” At AV Club Milwaukee, we do stories on local musicians every week. Evan at the ShepEx is working hard, too, as are the people at radio stations like WMSE and Radio Milwaukee and you guys at Fan Belt and Third Coast. A lot of us are working hard. You have a right to your opinion, and I’m sure you’ll do a good job covering the artists you don’t think are getting talked about enough. I look forward to reading it.

    Steven Hyden

  2. Anonymous says:

    One more thing: your line about Milwaukee music being like the “kid in college who goes to all his classes in his pajamas; comfortable, sure, but not getting anywhere” seems way, WAY off to me. Kings Go Forth, Jaill, and now Heidi Spencer have recently signed deals with major record companies. Others are sure to follow. At the risk of making another lame, Leno-esque joke: Did you write this column in 2007?

  3. Anonymous says:

    the midwest is not disadvantaged when it comes to music, but it’s disadvantaged regarding hype. all the best music comes from the midwest because shitty environments make for interesting art, all the most hyped music comes from the coasts because of L.A. and N.Y. and their army of tasteless hacks. this is why total bullshit like vampire weekend thrives while genuinely awesome bands like detroit’s terrible twos remain underground, waiting for the day in the future when ‘vampire weekend’ is the punchline of a joke and terrible twos are held up as iconic and ahead of their time.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Brian, with all due respect, who cares if your idiot friends from NYC don’t know where Milwaukee is on a map? NYCers are notoriously up their own ass. And yeah, MKE musicians are getting a lot of attention lately. Sounds like you’re the one who’s out of touch here. Do our city a favor: Don’t talk about a scene you obviously know nothing about to outsiders.

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