I usually try to avoid connecting themes when I’m making these mixes. My only goal is to make sure they sound great from start to finish, so with that in mind I try not to limit myself by only selecting songs that fit into some pre-set parameters. It can be a daunting task, to look at my 60,000+ song library and try and select 45 or more minutes of music that I haven’t included before, but I want these mixes to be eclectic, and giving them an organizing principal only makes that harder. However, this is not the case with this and next week’s mixes. I promise this was not my intention when I came up with each title (the first step I take in creating any of these mixes), but volume 72 and 73 are each organized around a theme, one that I hope did not affect my above-stated goal.
I’m a native of New York City. I was born here in September of 1991, and (according to deathclock.com) I’ll likely die here on September 2, 2077. I’m proud to be from New York, proud of the way this city has helped shape me as a person, the way it has effected my view of the world. So, since I decided to title volume 72 in The Dylan Samson Mix Series “Empire,” it seemed only right that I pay homage to The Empire State and the artists this city has inspired.
1. Cannibal Ox : Iron Galaxy
It’s safe to say that, when I first heard “Iron Galaxy,” I didn’t really understand what I was listening to. Like what I’m sure is the vast majority of people my age, my introduction to “Iron Galaxy” was not from listening to the incredible album it is from, but from hearing it on the soundtrack to “Tony Hawk’s Underground.” It’s easy to forgive myself and others for failing to realize how groundbreaking and important this song was. Sandwiched between songs like Sublime’s “Seed” and Kiss’ “Rock N’ Roll All Night,” it kind of just serves as background noise, a cool hip-hop track to listen to while you’re pretending to be the best skater in the world. You don’t notice the lyrical imagery that paints a startlingly bleak picture of New York City. You miss Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s complex rhyme patterns, or their refusal to dumb down complex, unpleasant ideas for the sake of clarity or popularity. You miss out on El-P’s incredible and innovative production, the way he uses ideas from industrial and noise music, or his use of negative space to highlight major points in the lyrics. You don’t realize it’s historical importance to New York City’s underground hip-hop scene of the early 2000s, the way it served as a sort of statement of purpose for the still young Definitive Jux label. It becomes just another great song to fake-skate to, a soundtrack for cool tricks rather than the groundbreaking achievement that it truly is.
2. Raekwon feat. Ghostface Killah : Criminology
Music nerds have a lot of games they love to play with one another. Best opening tracks. Bands that have released X amount of truly great albums in a row. Band Y versus band Z, who’s better? It’s a fun way to talk about and debate music, while showing off your knowledge of various bands or genres. My favorite has always been to pick two tangentially related albums, and then ask people which they prefer and why. “Speakerboxx,” or “The Love Below?” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “Pet Sounds?” “Cancer 4 Cure,” or “R.A.P. Music?” My favorite to debate however has always been GZA’s “Liquid Swords” versus Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” Each mark the solo debut of their creator, and put a real focus on that creator’s distinctive lyrical flow. They’re both wildly intelligent in the way they approach their subject matter, wildly clever in their verbiage, and wildly cinematic in their production and delivery. They’re each critical darlings, each add a huge amount to the Wu-Tang lexicon, and each have had an outsized amount of influence over hip-hop as a genre. So, which is better, and why? I won’t try to have that discussion here (I’m not one for arguing on the internet), but it’s a fun thing to think about next time you’re getting drinks with your music loving friends.
3. Gil Scott-Heron : The Revolution Will Not be Televised
This has always been my preferred version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That is not to knock the more produced version of the song that that opens 1971s “Pieces of a Man,” in fact that version is arguably more important to the development of hip-hop as a genre. But it’s the feel of this earlier, spoken word version that has always won my favor. The sparse beat, made completely from hand percussion puts the focus on Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful, intelligent lyrics. It feels angrier than the 1971 version, more militant, as if it were the rallying cry for the very revolution it spoke of. That revolution may not have materialized, but the message of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is still relevant, the feelings it evokes are still familiar. That anger still exists, and it is only a matter of time until we are forced to reckon with it.
4. The Strokes : Last Nite
The music scene that came out of New York City in the early 2000s was something truly special, a wide ranging burst of creativity that felt unique to this city. It spanned genres, largely ignored racial and gendered divisions, and incorporated ideas from forgotten acts that were long associated with New York. Some of the bands from this period have, rightly, become household names. You can’t listen to a band like The Strokes, to an album like “Is This It,” to a song like “Last Nite,” and not think of New York City. But, if I’m being honest, listening to “Is This It” or some of the other releases from this era just makes me feel sad.
Like I said at the top, I’m a native of New York City, and very proud of that. I love this city like no other I’ve ever been to, love what it is, what it has been, what it represents to the world. But, as great as this city is, and as incredible as some of the art and artists it has produced are, New York City is not as friendly to creatives as it once was. It’s hard to live here and still be a creative person, hard to focus on making something special when the daily demands of simply surviving here are so high. So, partially as a result of this, New York City really has not had another scene on the scale of it's early 2000s boom. No, these days more and more trending acts seem to be coming out of the West coast, out of Chicago or out of southern music capitals like Austin or New Orleans. By making New York harder and harder to simply survive in, we may have discouraged the next The Strokes, the TV on the Radio, the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs from coming here. Has the city completely lost what made it so special in the first place? No, not yet at least. But it’s getting harder and harder to argue that we’re heading in the right direction, to argue that we’re not just a city that allows scenes like that of the early 2000s to exist, but allows them to flourish.
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs : Date with the Night
It’s easy to forget how much of a dance-punk group the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were when they first started. Ever since their second record they have steadily moved more and more towards indie and synthpop sounds, to the point where they are far more associatewith those genres than anything else. But “Fever to Tell” and those early EPs have held up well, somehow managing to still fell exciting and vital almost 15 years later. Brian Chase’s driving drums and Nick Zinner’s creative use of noise in the guitarsare reminiscent of the dirtier, more dangerous New York from which the band was born. Even on record, Karen O’s vocal feel like a buzzing ball of energy, a bomb that can somehow go off multiple timein the span of 4 minutes. It’s visceral, exciting, sexy music, and really makes you wonder what it was that made the band move away from this style in the first place.
6. Liquid Liquid : Optimo
Why aren’t Liquid Liquid a household name? Was it the lack of melody in many of their songs? The complex rhythms? I really can’t figure it out. Their music is so freaking good, so energetic, so sexy and easy to dance to. Someone please enlighten me as to why they’re likely to always remain that band that the Sugar Hill Records house band covered to form the basis of Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” and not one of the most popular 80s bands in history.
7. NaS : N.Y. State of Mind
Historically speaking, “Illmatic” has come to occupy a very unique space in the hip-hop cannon. It seems to sit right on the line between contemporary and old-school hip-hop, pulling heavily from existing hip-hop traditions to create something so forward thinking, that it feels remarkably modern to this day. This is at least partially due to NaS’ skills as a lyricist, with using a complex mix of internal and compounded rhyme schemes to create a lyrical flow that has informed some of today’s best working rappers. But the content of those lyrics are strikingly old-school. Themes of poverty, gang & drug related violence, and life in the poorer neighborhoods of New York are all explored from a strikingly personal, first person perspective. It’s arguably the birth of contemporary hip-hop, but nevertheless pays its respect to everything that came before.
8. Camu Tao : Major Team
It took me a while to understand and appreciate the work of Camu Tao. I came to his music through his proximity to Aesop Rock and his membership on the Def Jux roster. But his work is far from accessible. Three albums with titles that reference a nonexistent member of the Cosby family, a couple collaborative records, and a posthumous release that, finally, provided me with an entrance point. His earlier work felt more, particularly the three “Blair Cosby” albums, felt more like mixtapes than proper albums. Each was a mix of disjointed sounds and styles, with plenty of songs that felt wildly unfinished, germs of an idea rather than fully developed ones. But when I finally listened to “King of Hearts,” Camu’s beautiful posthumous release in its entirety, I finally saw those earlier records for the genre experiments that they are. “Major Team” isn’t really indicative of this. A straight-ahead hip-hop track, it serves mostly as a vehicle for Camu to show us his skills as a rapper. The rest of the album is disarmingly all over the place, full of songs that are far more informed by rock, electronic music, or modern soul than hip-hop. Through “King of Hearts” I realized that this is what made Camu so special, that those strange, disjointed sounds on his early records were simply examples of him experimenting with the borders of genre or disregarding them altogether. Yes, they were messy, but that’s often the case with trailblazing work. It’s not always pretty, but it’s not supposed to be. They simply lay a foundation for others to improve upon.
9. Soulwax : Another Excuse [The DFA Remix]
I have three reasons for including “Another Excuse [The DFA Remix]” on this week’s mix. First, it works very well here, smoothly bringing us from the hip-hop of NaS and Camu Tao and into the experimental sounds of TV on the Radio. Second, it’s always very interesting to hear a song by Soulwax, a group that made their names as kings of the electronic remix scene, get remixed by someone else. And finally, this is a mix inspired by New York City. Did you really think I wasn’t going to include a song from The DFA?
10. TV on the Radio : Young Liars
This might be my favorite song by TV on the Radio. That’s not an easy call for me to make. My love and respect for this band has few equals, particularly considering the size and scope of their discography. I love the way its intensity just seems to build and build without any major changes in tempo or volume. I love Tunde Adebimpe’s lyrics, exploring themes of loneliness and relationships in a way that always causes my hairs to stand on end. I love Dave Sitek’s production, the steady addition of sounds that finally climaxes in a wave of beautiful noise that whirls around and leaves only the vocals and drums to ground you. I just love it, everything about it, and I love that, even after what feels like countless listens over the past 8 or so years, that feeling has not changed.
11. Matt & Kim : Cinders
Don’t have a lot to say about this song. Like I’ve said before, I find myself most drawn to Matt & Kim’s high energy, punkish songs, so this one is right up my alley. Here though, it’s mainly used as a transition, a song to take the built up potential energy from “Young Liars,” expend it, and end with a hard stop to set the stage for “Yet Again.”
12. Grizzly Bear : Yet Again
Even in the already accomplished songbook of Grizzly Bear, “Yet Again” felt like an achievement. Its sound is so primal, with those big, almost psychedelic drums. They almost risk feeling out of place with the gentle sound the band had long since perfected. But the rest for eh band rises to the occasion, imbuing every guitar strum, every bass thump, every word with that same strength, that same sense of purpose. It’s startling to say the least, sonically stepping away from the sleepy rock ballads of “Yellow House” and the baroque-pop of “Veckatimest,” but leaving the openness and emotional fragility that made those two albums feel like such a gut punch in tact. We’ve yet to get any inkling of where Grizzly Bear will take things on their long rumored followup to “Shields,” but so long as they preserve that emotionally honest core, it is safe to assume they’ll be able to take their sound wherever thy like.