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I Typed All of This



I Typed All of This

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Jehad NGA Searches for the Truth

Originally Written for LASTBLOG


Jehad NGA Searches for the Truth

Originally Written for LASTBLOG

In February 2011, after the violence in Libya erupted, Jehad Nga was the first journalist into the country. On assignment for The New York Times in neighboring Algeria, he and his colleagues had watched as the protests in Benghazi turned violent, staying glued to the newswires as the Libyan people rose up against the brutal regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. One of very few American journalist to also hold a Libyan passport – his “golden ticket” into the country – the Times asked him to be their eyes on the ground as the revolution spread towards Tripoli, an assignment he quickly accepted. This was his chance, that moment he’d waited his whole career for. “You think you’re going to paint your masterpiece,” says Jehad. “That ‘this is your Sistine Chapel.’”

You think you’re going to paint your masterpiece. That ‘this is your sistine chapel.’
— Jehad Nga

Once inside the country, it quickly became almost impossible to take any photos. The government started arresting journalists about 3 days after he arrived, so brandishing a huge camera around would just paint a giant target on his back. When he could no longer film normally, Jehad began to simply drive around the city, seeing what he could see, and calling in his notes to the Times’ correspondents across the border in Egypt or Tunisia. It didn’t take long before the security forces started noticing him popping up over and over again. He started to get repeatedly detained and questioned. At first he was able to talk his way out of getting arrested, never getting detained for more than a few hours. However, by the third or fourth time he was stopped, they stopped buying that Jehad had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time he wasn’t getting out of it. Jehad was arrested and held at the government’s central intelligence complex.

Born to a Libyan father and an American mother, Jehad had spent the first years of his life in Tripoli. The family moved to England when he was 4, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He was educated in American schools, but grew up immersed in the cultures of both sides of his family. As a young adult he bounced around a lot, never forming a tight-knit group of friends, and trying to form his own identity, one that mixed the cultures of his parents with the ones he’d grown up in. This cultural “duality,” as Jehad refers to it, has informed much of his life thus far, and is one of the reasons he has spent so much of his career photographing different countries around the world.

He came to photography through an interest in erotica, but started dabbling in photojournalism very naturally. A trip to Southeast Asia in his early twenties began as an excuse to get away after a bad breakup, but quickly turned into a longer excursion to keep taking pictures. Jehad would shoot all day, every day, steadily gravitating away from the subjects most beginner photographers love – sunrises, landscapes – and towards more journalistic topics. Families living in AIDS hospices. The Phnom Penh garbage dump. A similar trip to the Middle East took him to Jordan, Beirut, Palestine, and the Gaza strip, where he spent the entire time taking photos, despite an underlying current of disorder that permeated the entire trip.

Jehad wanted to return to Palestine as soon as he was back in the United States. He began training as an EMT, in hopes of volunteering with the Red Crescent in Gaza. But before he had a chance to put his training to use, the United States invaded Iraq, and he traveled to the country with two close friends to work as a freelance reporter during the invasion. He received his first assignment – from the New York Times – while in Iraq, beginning an on-and-off relationship with the paper that would last for over a decade.

To first look at Jehad’s photography, one might be surprised to learn that much of it was taken on assignment for major publications like the Times, The New Yorker or Time Magazine. His work deftly walks the line between art and journalism, delivering visually striking pictures that still reveal meaningful stories about their subjects. He sticks to journalism’s ethical code, refusing to majorly edit images after they’re captured. This approach makes Jehad consider everything – from how the technology of the camera will make the photo look, to how his composition and technique will effect what he’s trying to say with each photo – before the shutter is ever released. His only goal: to present the truth in the most visually appealing and effective way possible.

This process-oriented approach can seem counter-intuitive to many photojournalists, many of whom simply try to get as many pictures as possible and find the best one later. In fact, Jehad strongly prefers working at publications like The New Yorker, which use less photography, than for publications like Time that are more photo-centric. “It allows me to shoot at the tempo that I want to,” says Jehad. This slower, more deliberate, pace Jehad allows for some interesting experimentations with his photos. He’s used older, mechanical cameras that don’t allow him to take more than 5-6 pictures per minute, and experimented with polaroid and instant photography to help alleviate his ongoing frustrations with digital photography. All of this is fine with his colleagues at the New Yorker, where he enjoys a rare degree of creative freedom and a strongly collaborative relationship with their editors and the writer he works with on many assignments, John Lee Anderson. “They don’t question a great deal,” says Jehad. “You go some-place, and they don’t expect 300 images.” This relationship has allowed Jehad to experiment with new and creative ways to capture the truth, without constantly hounding him for a deadline.

There’s a kind of suction. It’s kind of like a Hydrogen bomb – it extinguishes all nearby oxygen when it goes off, but as that oxygen rushes back to the focal point it destroys everything in it’s wake.
— Jehad Nga

Around the same time Jehad was arrested in Tripoli, the Libyan government was beginning to let other journalists into the country – part of extremely supervised tours conducted in attempts downplay the scope of the revolution. Two of his colleagues from The Times were among the first group allowed into the country, and though they couldn’t contact him directly, it was clear that something was wrong when he stopped calling in reports and went quiet. “As soon as they landed, they knew something was wrong,” explains Jehad. The two were able to lobby government contacts on his behalf, and Jehad was released after a few days in prison. Despite his desire to stay in the country and continue reporting, his colleagues insisted he leave, and got him a flight home the day after he was released. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, the decision was for the best – it simply would have been too dangerous for him to stay.

He spent the next 5 months watching the revolution develop from the outside, desperately trying to find a way back into the country. “You feel like the one person that should be there is you,” says Jehad. “That’s where your family is from, where your father is from.” He was able to get back into Tripoli right before the Libyan government fell, and covered the exuberant chaos that surrounded Gaddafi’s fall from power. The city, though festive and excited, remained extremely dangerous and violent even after the National Transitional Council took power, with Gaddafi loyalists committing countless atrocities as they left. “There’s a kind of suction,” says Jehad, explaining the general feeling of a country after it has gone through a revolution. “It’s kind of like a Hydrogen bomb – it extinguishes all nearby oxygen when it goes off, but as that oxygen rushes back to the focal point it destroys everything in it’s wake.”

I think I’m just haunted by my conscience.
— Jehad Nga

Though much of his career has been spent in the as a photojournalist, Jehad doesn’t really feel like he has much invested in the medium any more. He goes through what he describes as “an annual crisis,” in he wants to give up photography all together. Though he’s learned to resist that urge, he still feels like the time is coming for to evolve away from photojournalism. “I have a very, very short attention span,” says Jehad. “My interests can only sustain for a short period. This is the longest I’ve ever gone, so my intensity and my drive has tapered off.” He’s had an increasing interest in cinematography over the last 9 years, and has been working with a friend on a film treatment that explores the idea of “duality” that has informed so much of his life.

In the mean time, he’s been exploring more artistic endeavors. His recent work explores the disconnect between the image a digital camera captures and what was there to begin with. It would be understandable to assume that Jehad spends hours editing the code behind these images, but his changes to them are minimal. A line here, a letter or number there, it doesn’t take much to corrupt the output. He avoids approaching any image with an end-result in mind, and wont edit it after the code has been adjusted. To him, editing a photo feels to much like he’s distorting that same truth he seeks as a photojournalist. “I think I’m just haunted by my conscience,” says Jehad. His work is not here to manipulate his audience or make a statement. He simply tries to capture the truth, and let others take it from there.


Header Image Credit: zkinkade, deviant art

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The Middle Way

Tommy Zung Traces his Creative Roots

Written for LASTBLOG

The Middle Way

Tommy Zung Traces his Creative Roots

Written for LASTBLOG

Most may think architecture was simply in Tommy Zung’s blood. It’s a fair assumption, particularly with architects like Thomas T.K. Zung for a father, and Buckminster Fuller for a godfather. Fuller (or Bucky as Zung calls him), is widely considered to be the father of the geodesic dome – having popularized the structure’s use – and is one of the most influential neo-futurist architects of all time, was a major figure in Zung’s childhood. His father, a student of Fuller’s, had made a name for himself at Edward Durell Stone, where, among other major projects, he helped design the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the New Orleans International Trade Mart, and United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, before merging his own practice with Fuller’s to form Buckminster Fuller, Sadao, and Zung.

[I] needed to live life in order to have substance and authenticity behind the design,
— Tommy Zung

His formative years were a juxtaposition of two distinct forces. Through his father he found order and structure in the ways of the world, while his godfather taught him to appreciate the “thirst for life” a traditional education couldn’t teach. At boarding school he was expected to get all A’s, while at home he would listen to the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers – all innovators in their own fields – and other colleagues of Fuller’s from Black Mountain College discuss art and science around his living room. Though he didn’t quite comprehend all the information he gleamed from listening to those conversations as a child, Zung recognizes their importance in shaping his worldview, helping him develop a great respect for those from whom he could learn, but always remaining cautiously skeptical of authority and institutions. As an adult, he’s always tried to walk “the middle way,” keeping one foot in the order taught to him by his father, and the other in the metaphysical world of Fuller.

After graduating college with degrees in environmental design and architecture, Zung went to California. Though his father had expected him to begin working at his firm, as he had every summer since high school, Zung spent his time surfing and snowboarding with his friends. “[I] needed to live life in order to have substance and authenticity behind the design,” says Zung, reflecting back on the somewhat rebellious nature of his time in California and the influence it has had on his work. He and some friends founded Zung Clothing out of a garage in Laguna Beach, informing the label's design with elements of snowboarding, street-wear, and Graffiti culture. Though he’s the first to admit that the label was a very young, thirsty, and naive endeavor, Zung feels that attitude is what made the line special. They initially “just wanted to get some hats and shirts and put a logo on them,” but eventually the label turned into a platform under which creatives of all different mediums – many of whom went on to start their own extremely successful endeavors – could create and collaborate. The label eventually grew to the point where Zung moved to New York and became more involved in the fashion industry, but his favorite memories from Zung Clothing all happened while collaborating with his friends in that garage in Laguna Beach.

Speaking to Zung, it’s easy to see the ways in which his past experiences have shaped who he is today. Still a frequent surfer, he speaks with a laid back, contemplative tone, frequently bringing up metaphysical concepts about sustainability and the connected qualities of our planet. He’s tried to integrate these ideas into his architectural firm, Studio Zung, mixing them with the naivety and collaborative ideals from Zung Clothing. Founded in 2013, the firm brings architectural, interior design, and branding services under one roof, treating each service as part of a whole and never putting one element above the another. “At this point everybody wants their company, their home, their hotel, their school, their office to be part of what they visualize as their brand,” says Zung. “Even if it’s an individual or a couple doing a residence or a small upstart company, they always want it to be viewed as part of them.”

To that end, Studio Zung works to make sure they approach every project holistically. The team at Studio Zung consists of urban planners, interior designers, architects, graphic designs, or copy-writers, all of whom work on every project they take on. Throughout the project, everyone on the team listens to, collaborates with, and influences everyone else, creating a what Zung sees as a seamless work environment. “There’s no walls between it,” says Zung. “There’s no differentiation, cubicles, or disjointedness at all.” This interconnected approach lets the studio explore more with each project, delivering more for the client and implementing ideas that might have fallen through the cracks if the firm had adhered to a more traditional, compartmentalized model.

I think at this point with the world being flat, or smaller, or however you want to say it, there’s not seven degrees of separation any more. There’s two, there’s three. There’s more connectedness within the world. There’s a knowledge of what’s happening.
— Tommy Zung

The collaborative nature of Studio Zung speaks to the firm’s creative ideology. Almost everyone in the company surfs, and the projects they take on are almost always aligned with that lifestyle and interconnected philosophy adopted by many surfers. “I think at this point with the world being flat, or smaller, or however you want to say it, there’s not seven degrees of separation any more.” says Zung. “There’s two, there’s three. There’s more connectedness within the world. There’s a knowledge of what’s happening.” This interconnected ideology Zung and his colleagues adhere to helps shape the projects they work on, and encourages them to employ sustainable, environmentally conscious materials and design processes, in the hopes of leaving the world better than they found it.

Zung himself is always fighting to make sure his work doesn’t become stagnant. “It’s dangerous if we’re not always wondering if we’re not doing great work,” says Zung. He acknowledges the importance of going to his own influences for guidance, but actually finds himself going to younger people, particularly those who intern at Studio Zung, for inspiration. With mentors having played a major role in Zung’s life, he tries to fulfill this role in his firm, but recognizes that he can learn as much from his juniors as they can learn from him. “People who abandon a lot of the formality of architecture do some of the best work out there,” says Zung, explaining the importance of remaining somewhat naive in any creative pursuit. In his mind, naivety prevents creativity from falling into a box, from becoming about what somebody wants to express rather than what he does.

My love is more bespoke, even if [the projects] are large scale, It’s more realizing the emotional quality of form, mass, space, light, materials. The essence of design in life, the acknowledgement of impermanence and how all these materials and designs are coming out of nothing, becoming something, and eventually will become nothing again.
— Tommy Zung

As the firm continues to grow, Zung has begun to think about whether or not his company’s ideology can translate into something bigger. Though he’s not sure a larger agency would be able to sustain the same creative and collaborative environment as Studio Zung and is very careful about the rate at which his firm grows, Zung does recognize the importance of taking on larger projects. Though he’s not planning to take on large scale projects like the ones that defined his father’s career, Studio Zung has taken on some larger undertakings going forward, even collaborating with a hotel company to develop a whole new hotel brand that adheres to Zung’s philosophy of simplicity being the new luxury. “My love is more bespoke, even if [the projects] are large scale,” says Zung. “It’s more realizing the emotional quality of form, mass, space, light, materials. The essence of design in life, the acknowledgement of impermanence and how all these materials and designs are coming out of nothing, becoming something, and eventually will become nothing again.”

Though there is some concern that the larger firms of the world will not be able to adopt his methodology, Zung feels that more people are beginning to pay attention to design, and the visual elements that effect everyday life, and that this awareness could easily lead to a marked improvement our lives. He’s excited by the way the world seems to be turning, seeing the increased connectedness of our culture as confirmation of the ideas he tries to live by. Ideas that, to Zung at least, can be traced back to his childhood living room, listening to his father, Bucky, and their colleagues discuss art, architecture, and the metaphysical nature of life as we know it.


Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Bait and Switch

IU’s Cheating Policies Put Burden on Teaching Staff

A Personal Essay and Extended Report Into Indiana University's Academic Integrity Policies.

Originally Written and Reported for the Indiana University Journalism Program. Later Edited and Published in the Indiana Daily Student.

Bait and Switch

IU’s Cheating Policies Put Burden on Teaching Staff

A Personal Essay and Extended Report Into Indiana University's Academic Integrity Policies.

Originally Written and Reported for the Indiana University Journalism Program. Later Edited and Published in the Indiana Daily Student.

Thursday, Sept. 20

“Do you see what this guy is doing?”

“Where am I looking?” I asked.

“A little more than halfway up, all the way against the right wall, gray hoodie,” Andrew said. “If he does it again, I want to kick him out.”

I turned to look in the direction to which Andrew had directed me. I quickly spotted the student in question, who, at that moment, was looking directly at the desk of the student to his right. The student in the hoodie quickly went back to his own test, erasing a previous answer and replacing it with a new one.

There was no doubt in my mind as to what was going on. Like the handful of other students we had already spotted during that first test in The Music of The Beatles, we had just caught another cheater. 

Sam, the other extra grader, had already spotted three students in the middle of the room who had compared answers throughout the test’s listening section. Glenn Gass, the professor and my boss, had spotted two students toward the back who had been clearly looking at each other’s tests. I had seen several students on the left side of the room holding their tests straight out in front of them, angling the paper so their neighbors could clearly see the answers.

Glenn and I had already discussed kicking those we had seen out of the lecture hall, but we had decided it would make too much of a scene. We resolved to pull the tests once they had been turned in, keeping those we suspected of cheating separate from the rest of the class. We could deal with them later.

It’s a decision I greatly regret.

By the end of the test, the students in question had no idea we had seen anything, and we had no idea what we were going to do with their exams. When I left the lecture hall that night, we had already separated 18 tests from the remaining 338 tests. Of those 18, 15 were from international exchange students. 

It was a problem we had anticipated, since we had been dealing with similar issues for several years.

It was a problem when I took the class as a freshman, when Glenn would often remark about how empty the room seemed. On tests nights, the third of the room that remained empty the rest of the semester became filled with students, who sat on their phones and laptops until the test was passed out.

It was a problem when I sat in on the class for fun during my sophomore year, when the majority of the students appeared for the first time on test night. All the while, students who audited the class every week complained they had not been able to enroll. 

It continued to be a problem my junior year, when I was hired as a grading assistant, and roughly 80 percent of the international students received A’s on every exam despite being chronically absent from class. 

Glenn and I began meeting with other professors and administrators about ways to deal with the problem. At their suggestion, we began taking daily attendance, gave regular pop quizzes and switched from multiple-choice tests to short answer. 

We first tried this strategy during the spring semester in another of Glenn’s courses, The Music of Bob Dylan, and it had been moderately successful. Attendance had increased, the average grade dropped from an A+ to a B and the international students we had suspected of cheating dropped the class before we even had time to grade at their first tests.

It seemed very harsh to have to make any of these modifications and seemed to signal a real lack of trust of the students, but given the circumstances and the evidence of cheating, we had little choice. We had to play the hand university administration had given us.

In the four years since IU adopted the “Indiana University International Strategic Plan,” the international student population on the Bloomington campus has grown by almost 55 percent. Today, there are more than 6,000 international students currently enrolled at IU-Bloomington, largely as a direct result of the university’s push to have one of the 10 highest international enrollment levels nationwide.

“That shouldn’t be a goal. It should be an outcome of other things we do that we do well,” said Gary Potter.

Potter has taught music theory at the Jacobs School of Music for almost 30 years and currently serves as the school’s director of undergraduate studies.

“I’m not sure that we’re doing well with the students that we’ve got, with bringing them in and educating them about our system, our language and our expectations,” Potter said. “If we’re not gonna do that, we shouldn’t be bringing them in. It’s a bait and switch.”

In his unique role as both a professor and an administrator, Potter sees this issue through a lens not available to many. Though he has not seen any academic integrity violations from international students in his classes, he has heard from plenty of other professors who have dealt with a disproportionate amount of academic integrity violations from international students. 

Having heard arguments on both sides, he is worried that the university administration has become too focused on admitting international students to solve the University’s fiscal difficulties. The pitfalls from rapid integration are invisible to the administrations, and it will be the teachers who have to reconcile these widely different educational cultures to make sure these students receive the education they are paying so much for.

“Diversity is a wonderful thing, and we wanted to have diversity,” says Potter, “But what we’re getting is negative diversity.”

The issue is in no way exclusive to international students. The last four years have seen a steady increase in reports of academic integrity violations campus wide, with the 2011-12 school year showing a record high for the last 10 years. 

According to Potter, however, a report at the beginning of the semester summarizing these numbers had indicated that the largest percentage of new cases came from international students.

“It used to be that students from Asia were the best students in terms of their ability, their preparation,” explained Professor Peter Olson, who teaches economics, “Now, there’s a much wider distribution, and a lot of the worst students now are from Asia.” 

His feeling is that the University now accepts students who are not as well prepared anymore. In an effort increase tuition revenue, the administration isn’t vetting the students who pay top dollar to attend the University.

Tuesday, Oct. 2

The last grade was entered into2 the Oncourse grad-book at 11:47 p.m. Tuesday. In the week and a half it had taken to get all 356 tests graded, we had found two more extremely suspicious tests, both from exchange students, bringing the total up to 20.

Next to the 20 zeros I had entered into the gradebook, I entered the following comment:

“Our test proctors viewed you cheating during the test. As such, you have received a 0.”

It was not the most carefully worded statement, I admit, but it clearly got the point across. I clicked submit, closed my laptop and rolled into bed. I needed sleep, and it had been a long week.

By the time I woke up Wednesday morning, I already had nine emails from the students we had contacted. The rest of the day was a blur of emails. Emails from other students asking to see their tests, emails to and from Glenn about what to do about the angrier emails, forwarded emails from the department of student ethics, explaining that unless we could identify a consistent pattern of cheating on the test itself, it would be difficult to prove any claims of academic misconduct. A handful of identical wrong answers and four people saying they viewed the students in question cheating would not be enough. 

By the time I had to leave my house that day, I had received emails from 11 of the 20 students we suspected of cheating. I left my computer at home that afternoon to give myself a break from the constant torrent. 

By the time I got back to my computer that night, I had still more emails from students we had contacted. When the clock struck midnight, I did a quick tally of how many emails I had received that day regarding the test. There were 34 in my inbox, a new record. Glenn and I consulted as to how best to handle this, and I sent a new message to the 20 students in question, asking that they come talk to us after class tomorrow night.

Professor Olson has taught economics at IU for 23 years now, years which can be found in the organized chaos of his office. Among the piles of tests, homework assignments, overhead-transparencies and various other piece of paper that cover the floor and stack close to the celling, Olson has kept every academic integrity violation he has processed in the last 12 years. 

From fall 2000 through spring 2010, Olson had reported 35 cases of academic misconduct. By the end of fall 2011, just one year later, Olson had already reported another 29 new cases of academic misconduct. Of those 29 cases, 20 involved international students.    

Though incidents have spiked during the last four years, Olson has the impression that the Office of Student Ethics seems to be more concerned about students being reported than the cheating itself. 

“I don’t wanna say they discouraged me, but they,” Olson paused. “I got the impression that they are becoming more of an advocate for the students as opposed to having a disciplinary function for the University.”

The Office of Student Ethics would likely agree with Olson on that point. Jason Casares, the associate dean of students and director of student ethics, said the department’s focus has shifted during the last two years, putting more emphasis on education than punishment.

Students who might have once been put on academic probation or suspended for an academic integrity violation are now required to attend an eight-hour academic integrity seminar. 

The seminars were first introduced as a pilot program last semester but now have been fully adopted by the University. The seminars have shown positive results, and Casares said more than 98 percent of students who attended the seminar have indicated a better understanding of the school’s academic integrity policies.

Even so, there are concerns that these new policies aren’t helping prevent new academic integrity violations. 

“Those courses should be done ahead of time,” Potter argued. “There might be a point in doing that afterward, but it would be so much better if you did it before. It’s not very proactive.”

Potter will be step down from his position as director of undergraduate studies at the end of the semester. He hopes that this discussion will continue but is fearful many professors and administrators will not come forward about the issue.

“Faculty and administrators are sometimes hesitant to speak up to suggest that it might be wise to re-think our efforts vis-a-vis international students,” explains Potter. “After all, it’s the president’s initiative and seems to be a top priority, it’s the fiscally smart thing to do and it smacks of parochialism or even racism for one to question the value of increasing international population.”

The problem, as Potter puts it, is that the longer we wait to tackle some of these issues, the more the students themselves are shortchanged.

Thursday, Oct. 4

Fourteen of the 20 students we had emailed sat in the first two rows after class that night waiting for us to finish talking to other students who had asked to see their tests. Some looked angry, some curious. Some looked confused, others scared. One looked visibly shaken.

Once we had finished talking to other students, we sat at the front of the class and explained our position. We gave examples of what we saw. We explained that the tests largely backed up our opinions and how difficult this process had been.

We didn’t want to be there, but it wasn’t completely up to us. Growing frustration with attendance and prompts from the administration to crack down on academic integrity violations had brought us there. Now that we had arrived, however, we felt like we were stranded up a creek without a paddle. cliche, perhaps a better way of putting this feeling?

We invited them up to the front to view their tests. Most denied that they had cheated. “We just studied together” was the most common excuse, even after we showed them page after page of identical answers. Others yelled after seeing the same thing. Some went quiet after we pointed out that their answers matched up with the other test form. Some expressed frustration with the frank quality of my initial message, saying that I should have simply asked them to come see us instead of accusing them of cheating from the start. I couldn't really disagree with them about that part.

Some students stood out from the others. One confessed to everything before we could even tell him what we saw, apologizing profusely and swearing it would never happen again.

Two came up to us while the others were looking at their tests. “We really did just study together,” one said. 

There was no trace of anger or frustration in their voices as they explained their position to us. They were calm and polite, speaking in hushed voices the whole time, and giving us no reason to believe they were being anything but honest. “We’re really not like THOSE Koreans,” said the other. 

It was clear at that moment they completely understood our position. As we had so many problems with international students in the past, we saw that we might have been a little quick to judge some of these students.

In the three days after he first arrived in the United States, Youho “Rho” Cha barely said a word to anyone. He had expected the culture to be different here but was in no way prepared for just how different it was.

He had traveled from Korea to Bloomington with his older sister, a senior studying business at IU. She helped him move into his room in “Middle Earth,” one of four houses owned by Bloomington Cooperative Living, making sure he was settled in before she headed back to her co-op, leaving him on his own in a very new world. 

Rho was not yet enrolled at IU, so he had no student orientation to meet anyone. He had studied English for seven years in Seoul, South Korea, but he didn’t have very much experience with conversation, at least not enough to keep up with native speakers. 

In his first two months in Bloomington, Rho enrolled in IU’s Intensive English Program. For five hours every day, he practiced writing, reading, grammar and conversation skills. 

The program ended at the beginning of November, at which point Rho and his classmates took the Test Of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, exam, the same exam IU now requires of all international students. Rho got 509 points out of a possible 677. 

Along with his high school grades, the score was good enough for him to be accepted into IU, but he’ll be taking classes at Ivy Tech come January. Tuition is cheaper, and all the courses he’ll be taking will transfer to IU next fall. 

He is very excited to begin his studies at the university but admits feeling he has had little cultural preparation other than what his sister could offer for the expectations of such an academic institution.     

In high school in South Korea, Rho and his classmates began their classes at 8 a.m. and often wouldn’t leave for home until at least 10 p.m.. Rho’s days were spent attending Korean, math, English, and science followed by strictly supervised individual studying. 

Returning home to the supervision of his parents, he often studied well into the morning. The grades Korean students earn in high school are all that determine which universities they are accepted to, so anything below straight A’s could make it impossible for students to realize their goals after graduation. 

“Cheating isn’t uncommon,” Rho said. “We know we don’t have to cheat, and many people think that. But actually, if we can, if it is helpful for my grade, and if you can hide my cheating, then it’s OK. That’s what many students think.”

Rho remembers cheating at least once in middle school by glancing at a friend’s exam during a midterm test. He wasn’t caught, but if he had been, he would have received a 0 in that class for the semester and would have had to negotiate an additional punishment with that teacher. 

“Most students still study and work very hard,” he stressed. “Those ones never cheat on tests. But there are  one or two students every test who are caught.”

Rho hasn’t cheated on an exam since.

Thursday, Oct. 4

Later that evening, when I stopped to carry my bike up the set of stairs that perpetually blocked my route home, I noticed my handlebars were rattling. I looked down to see that my hands were visibly shaking. I was exhausted form the stress of these confrontations. I wheeled my bike over to a bench and let it fall to the ground as I sat and caught my breath.

The night had been awful.

This was The Beatles class, for God’s sake; it shouldn’t be so stressful.

This was the band I started seriously listening to when a girl I liked in seventh grade told me it was her favorite group. This was the band I’d listened to so much during my first semester at IU that my roommate eventually begged me to listen to something else. I went to the Beatles for comfort, unconditional acceptance and love. No matter how terrible life became, the Beatles would be there to make me feel like everything would be OK.

I didn't expect any of the students in class to care as much about The Beatles as I did. I just wanted them to care enough that this music made some kind of impression on them. I wanted them to understand the music and why it was important culturally. At the very minimum, I wanted them to come to class and have enough respect for the professor and his staff that this kind of thing would never happen.

Why didn’t this class matter to them?

“What did we accomplish?” I wondered.

We’d managed to make a dozen students and a few administrators mad. We’d subjected ourselves to significant amounts of extra work and strained our nervous systems far beyond anything we had expected.

It was 11:30 p.m. before my hands were steady enough to finish the ride. I got back on my rickety old bike and, straining to build up speed, headed for home.

Tuesday, Oct. 16

By the time the dust settled and we had complied with the student ethics department’s suggestion of  reporting only the ones we could prove on paper, the number of tests we felt we could process had dwindled to seven of the original 20. Three other students would receive 0s but would not be reported for an academic violation. 

We weren’t out to get any of these students, and we didn’t want to put a permanent mark on their record, but we couldn’t let them go unpunished for cheating. The remaining 10, each of whom we had witnessed bending the rules, would receive their grades as if nothing had ever happened. 

The forms were ready, and I had filled out everything except the students’ names and usernames. I logged into Oncourse to gather the last pieces of information only to find that it was too late.

During the time we spent talking with various departments and waiting for students to come speak with us, the class roster had dwindled from 356 students to 342. Every single student we were going to report had dropped the class while we were deliberating. 

We could still have chosen to report them, but what was the point? All it would do now was draw out the process and the stress, and take more time away from focusing on what we were there to do in the first place: to listen, appreciate, and learn from some music by a band that meant more to us than any other.

Had we made the right choice? I’m not sure. 

It seemed right at the time.


Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Death is Not the End

A review of Flying Lotus' "You're Dead!" written for my personal blog.

Death is Not the End

A review of Flying Lotus' "You're Dead!" written for my personal blog.

On a rainy Friday night in early October, I said goodbye to my roommate and a friend of ours, grabbed my coat, and left the bar we had been haunting to head for home. It was relatively early in the evening – only about 11 or 11:30 – and I couldn’t have been out longer than an hour or so, but yet here I was, hailing a cab to go home. The reason for leaving? I was going to listen to Flying Lotus’ new album, “You’re Dead!,” while it streamed on Youtube for 24 hours as part of the “Day of You’re Dead!” promotion. Not only that, but I’d made plans to chat about it with two of my close friends from college over Facebook. I’d already listened to the album twice since the stream began earlier that afternoon, but this time I got to listen to it with (albeit digitally) two of my closest friends, both of whom were also extremely excited for the album’s release, and who’s opinions I really valued.

There’s nowhere left to go, so I’d like to save you,
 They all want to be saved...
— Steven Ellison

While preparing to write this article, I went back through the transcript of that conversation, and found it to be surprisingly valuable. I got to see some of mine and my friends’ earliest reactions to the album in almost real time. We would get side-tracked occasionally, but for the most part we were simply reacting to the album as it happened. Though I’m not exactly sure which tracks were playing as certain reactions happened, the key takeaway from our online listening party was how quickly we realized that something big was happening. Though it incorporated many of the ideas and sounds that Flying Lotus – known to his friends as Steven Ellison – had touched on in the past, he’d found something new with “You’re Dead!” First and foremost, Ellison had taken a huge risk and delivered what was essentially a free jazz record, presenting complex, virtuosic music while trying not to alienate his core fans. Beyond that, he was tackling big, difficult themes in a way that was extremely accessible to the average listener.

With “You’re Dead!” Ellison has hit on something new. It’s a challenging record that throws popular trends by the wayside to make room for its creator’s unique vision, one that beckons the listener in and introduces them to new ideas that they may not have contemplated before. It’s a rare piece of art that truly attempts to expand the minds of its audience, and after listening to it only a few times, it was abundantly clear that “You’re Dead!” was far and away my favorite album from 2014.

From the opening bars of “Theme,” it’s clear that Ellison is trying something new. His previous album, 2012’s “Until the Quiet Comes,” was ambient and ethereal, a beautiful album that seemed to burrow its way into you’re consciousness when you were only half paying attention. The startling, disorienting start of “Theme,” does the exact opposite, knocking you off your feet and forcing you to listen. There is no rhythm, no meter, no key. Only pure, loud, sound. Like Ellison’s head on the album’s cover, “Theme” shoots right through your skull, knocking you backwards and cackling as you try and get your bearings. And then, just as you start to get accustomed to the sound being presented, the rest of the song kicks in, and makes things even harder. A-tonal, jazz-oriented, and virtuosic as all hell, keyboards, bass and guitar kick in with a drum beat that starts out jagged, but quickly starts to swing as Ellison and his band move through the next few, equally complex songs. This isn’t popular music. Or, rather, this isn't what popular music is supposed to sound like.

Hold my hand, laying in the bed, 
Family crying, they think he dead
, No jokes no hoax, 
Felt his palm, he had no pulse
— Snoop Dogg

That all said however, it wasn't the complexity that surprised me the most about “You’re Dead!” when I was first listening to it. Ellison’s music has always been complex, it’s part of what is so appealing about him. He’s also always had some elements of jazz in his work, a likely side effect of sharing blood with jazz royalty John and Alice Coltrane. No, what surprised me most wasn’t the fact that “You’re Dead!” was jazz influenced, but that it was essentially a jazz album. This isn’t an electronic album with free jazz influences. No, this is a free-jazz album that pulls in elements of hip-hop as well as experimental and ambient electronic music, blending them into its very own sound.

It’s the kind of thing that forces the listener to sit up and take notice. Regardless of how you feel about jazz – and particularly this extremely complex sub-genre – one has to admit that it takes guts to release an album like this. Jazz hasn’t been considered popular music for over 60 years, yet with “You’re Dead!” Ellison has released an album that is arguably more influenced by it than by the instrumental hip-hop and electronic scenes in which he made his name. It is a courageous example of an artist bucking the trend, taking their work exactly where they want it to go, and trusting that their audience will follow once they’ve had a chance to digest things. In today’s climate of dwindling record sales and increasing pressure to create something that the masses will love, artists who follow nothing but their own vision should be applauded.

Though “You’re Dead!” definitely see’s Ellison scratch his jazz itch more than ever before, his other musical tendencies are still very present. Hip-hop and beats records, experimental electronic music, ambient compositions, soul and R&B, it’s all here, but it’s blended by Ellison and his studio musicians into a new kind of amalgam. It’s in that blend of styles that “You’re Dead!” still manages to remain accessible to Ellison’s core listeners. Even at its most difficult and daunting, “You’re Dead!” always gives even the most casual listener something to hang on to, to nod their head, tap their foot, and, at times, even dance to.

Reminisce on my wonder years and I wonder here Sentiments of my words ain’t been so sincere
— Kendrick Lamar

While all the songs seem to effortlessly blend into one another – as has come to be expected on a Flying Lotus record at this point – the album itself can be divided up into several shorter, song cycles. The first four tracks for example seem to build and build in intensity, finally culminating in “Never Catch Me,” arguably “You’re Dead!”’s standout track. Entire essays could be devoted to Kendrick Lamar’s intense and verbose lyrics, which take on the point of view of the departed and explore dozens of possible reactions to their own death. In less than 3 minutes he tackles the spiritual and philosophical implications of passing on, while spanning the 5 stages of grief as he departs from this realm. And on Lamar’s heels, in one of the most spectacular one-two-punches of 2014, Captain Murphy (Ellison’s hip-hop alter-ego, making his first appearance on a Flying Lotus record) takes on the voice of the deceased for “Dead Man’s Tetris,” still in utter disbelief of his own demise, only to meet Snoop Dogg, who in his role as gatekeeper of the afterlife, confirms Murphy and Kendrick’s demise, and introduces us to this new plane of existence.

Kendrick and Snoop’s appearances on “You’re Dead!” are indicative of the caliber of musicians that fill out the album’s extensive guest list. The album utilizes more live instrumentation than any of Ellison’s previous releases, and sees contributions from vocalists such as Niki Randa, Angel Deradoorian, and Kimbra Johnson, not to mention a studio band made up of great jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington and Deantoni Parks, and instrumental contributions from “Metalocalypse” creator and rising guitar hero Brendan Small. as well as the legendary keyboardist and genre bender Herbie Hancock. However, at the core of the “You’re Dead!” band is the virtuosic bassist Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat. In addition to his own duo of fantastic R&B albums, Bruner has been a longtime collaborator with Ellison, with the pair working together on every Flying Lotus release since 2010’s “Cosmogramma.” “You’re Dead!” sees Bruner playing on every track, essentially giving him the role of Ellison’s musical foil. Though he frequently plays complex, masterful bass parts, Bruner’s bass gives “You’re Dead!” a strong backbone. No matter how far out and strange the rest of the album gets, Bruner’s bass parts give listeners something to hang on to, a safe place to return to before venturing out into the vast stretches of the afterlife.

All of this would only mean so much if Ellison didn't have anything interesting to say with “You’re Dead!,” but the themes he explores on the album are absolutely fascinating. The idea of thematically linking an album is nothing new to Ellison, in fact all of his albums to date have had some kind of theme to them. “1983” delved into the sounds of his birth year, while the hyperactive beats of “Los Angeles” were an attempt to capture the feeling of his home city. With “Cosmogramma” he delved into more spiritual territory, exploring the planets of our solar system and their relationship to heaven and hell, while on “Until the Quiet Comes” he presented his thesis on the thin line between dreaming and waking. Presenting a theme with each of his albums has helped Ellison keep things interesting, and really solidifies his releases as singular albums rather than simple collections of songs.

We will live on forever
— Steven Ellison, Laura Darlington and Kimbra Johnson

With “You’re Dead!,” Ellison takes on a theme that is simultaneously more difficult and more relatable than ever before. Regardless of where we come from, of what path we take in life, death is one of the few events that is experienced by all human beings, and yet we know little to nothing about it. But even though it is a universal event, Ellison doesn't assume death is  universally experienced. Rather, he tries to present various possibilities of death, covering the range from Snoop Dogg’s gatekeeper to the afterlife, to the angel of death that torments the listener on “Coronus, The Terminator,” to the fall into insanity that Thundercat presents on “Descent into Madness.” Ghosts of Ellison’s heroes and friends – J Dilla, Alice Coltrane, Austin Peralta – haunt the album, but never turn its tone too bleak. Hell, that exclamation mark in the title lends the whole album some levity to begin with. Ellison isn’t trying to present a conclusion with regards what happens after the moment of death and beyond, he’s simply exploring the possibilities while holding tight to one key assumption: that death is not the end.

There is something truly unique happening on “You’re Dead!,” something that goes beyond the complex theme, the amazing guest spots, and the fusion of sounds Ellison has been exploring on his previous releases. Its free-jazz style and dark, complex theme of instantly makes it stand out in today’s popular music scene, not only because you don’t hear these kinds of things very often, but because it’s by no means popular among listeners. It takes a lot of guts to make an album purely because you want to hear it, and a lot of trust in your audience to know that they’ll follow you wherever you take them with that album. 

And in the end, that’s what made “You’re Dead!” my favorite album of 2014. The skill involved in creating a record like this is notable, and the courage it took in deciding to do so should be applauded. Ellison has given us a virtuosic, a-tonal, free jazz album, and yet somehow made sure it was still accessible to his listeners. He’s created high-art for the masses, a symphony designed for the jukebox. With “You’re Dead!” Steven Ellison has delivered an album that challenges his audience and expands their minds, while still giving them something to dance to.

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The Storyteller

An Interview with Christine de Lassus

Written for LASTBLOG

The Storyteller

An Interview with Christine de Lassus

Written for LASTBLOG

When fashion stylist Christine de Lassus looks at clothes, the first thing she sees is a story. The cut, the drape, the history behind the piece; everything about it mixes with her knowledge of the industry, to create narratives that bring the fashion world to life. She gives these stories life through her spreads published in magazines like the international editions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and L’Official. Born in Paris, Christine’s career has been defined by these stories, drawing inspiration not only from the pieces themselves, but from some of her favorite film directors and photographers, bringing as much influence from the films of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch and the photographs of Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Garry Winogrand as she does Prada, Alexander McQueen and Charles James. With a career that’s spanned over two decades and allowed her to collaborate with some of the biggest names in the business, Christine recently spoke with LASTBLOG about the roots of her career, her frustration with the changing nature of fashion publications, and how she creates the stories that define her work.

LASTBLOG: Where do you go for inspiration? Is there anything that consistently inspires you?

Christine de Lassus: Well, my inspiration has come from different places throughout my career. It used to come a lot from the street and the club scene, when there was a really vibrant scene happening in New York. I’ve always also drawn a lot of inspiration from movies. I’m a big fan of cinema, and there was always inspiration there because I like my fashion [stories] to have the sense of a scenario, like if it’s a little movie. So if I can write a story in my head, and create a character, that helps me choose the clothes, or the style, the hair and makeup, and sort of direct the whole thing.

…I like my fashion [stories] to have the sense of a scenario, like if it’s a little movie.
— Christine de Lassus

These days, unfortunately, the fashion scene has changed a lot, and it’s become harder and harder to create such scenarios. Most magazines just want you to use advertisers’ [clothes], and do studio pictures, where it’s just about the clothes. There is a lot less money to travel and shoot on location. Therefore the inspiration [becomes] more about the silhouettes and the girl for me. I’m big on silhouettes when I work in studios, it’s the main thing when there’s no decor, no location. I do that well, but that’s not where my heart is most at.

LASTBLOG: When do you remember noticing the change from that very vibrant scene you were describing, to what the fashion scene is like now? 

CdL: I would say in the last six years. Before, when you were doing an editorial story, about one-third, or half the garments could be [from] non-advertisers. So you could use Japanese designers, you could use Belgian designers, or any new creative designers. Now it’s all about the big fashion houses, Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Armani, etcetera…  [Advertisers] count the number of publications they have in different magazines, and if the magazine you work for has less than another magazine they’ll go to the editor in chief and say, “I’m going to pull my ads out because the other magazine has more tear sheets with my clothes than you do.” It’s as if the magazines are now owned by the advertisers. So it has become a different exercise of style, it is now about photographing advertisers’ clothes as creatively as possible while showing well their products. It is a different challenge.

LASTBLOG: Do you think it has something to do with the way that print is trying to survive in the internet age?

CdL: I don’t think it has to do with the internet at all. Actually, I think in some ways the social media and the use of videos have allowed for more creativity. For print, I believe it has to do with the way that the big fashion groups are controlling the magazines and their own image. For instance now if you want to use Louis Vuitton clothes, their PR has to approve the model you have booked before you can request looks! Before there was a lot more freedom, now it is more like advertising, but the challenge just becomes to do something creative within those boundaries. It is still fun and challenging but not as creatively thrilling.

LASTBLOG: Working within those boundaries, how do you know when you’re doing something that might fall outside of them?

CdL: Well I almost always choose my stories’ themes keeping the advertisers of the magazines I work for in the back of my mind, so I do not fall out of the boundaries.

I get inspired by art, movies, creative photographers and images I see in my life, and I pitch different themes to different magazines according to the level of creativity and freedom they give you. People don’t impose stories on me, I choose the theme, and then find a way to make it work. I wouldn’t choose a theme that I can’t get inspired and excited about. I also collaborate a lot with photographers on the visual rendering of the story.

It is sometimes difficult to perfectly express what you want to say unless you are [with] a very powerful magazine. When you work for American Vogue, W or Interview – to only mention U.S. publications – then you know that you’re going to get all the looks you requested. You know you’re going to have directional looks as well as some extra choices when it comes to mixing or really creating a story. When you work for foreign magazines, and are based in ny, you usually don’t know [which look] you’re going to get until the last second, and you only get one look, so it’s harder to do a very strong, powerful story. Though I must say that most PR houses are wonderful and go out of their way to help me create my vision. Also there are so few samples and so many magazines in the new global world that sometime you have to use the only looks available from some of the advertisers which  have little to do with the original concept so you have to re-invent slightly your story to make it fit with the clothes you have. It is like dancing on a thin wire. It’s hard, but you always manage to make it work. The fun is always in the challenge.

LASTBLOG: I read that you studied math and physics in school, and that you wanted to go into architecture initially. 

CdL: [Laughing] Yeah! Basically, because I loved drawing and art since I was a kid, and was always going to museums with my parents, [architecture] was kind of a good combo, to mix art and mathematics. I was actually very interested in urbanism, I thought it was great, to be able to create cities and [decide] how people are going to live. But my father would not let me do architecture in those days. First of all, it [required] a very long education, and was a very misogynistic profession, so you’re going to spend seven years of your life [studying] and then you won’t get a job. He made me meet some old, nasty architects who really discouraged me. But I really think the reason my father didn’t want me to do architecture was because of what we call the monomes, which I guess is like the freshmen at Beaux-arts in Paris. In those days they would really be rough on the women freshmen. They had a woman who was painted head to toe and died. So, more than anything else, I think my father didn’t want me to do architecture for that one reason.

So they sent me to see this woman, not a psychologist but a woman who did tests and said, “Oh, she’s good in art, and she’s good in mathematics, so she should do advertising.” What she forgot to say was that the creative floor was not on the same floor as the marketing department, so I found myself in a business school specializing in advertising, and when doing my internship at TBWA Paris, I was not on the floor where I wanted to be. So I spent all my time on the creative floor, and became very good friends with the creative director, and that’s how I met a photographer’s agent who was working with him. She really liked me and liked my energy, and said, “Why don’t you come work for my photographers?” And she just made me a stylist overnight. I didn’t even know what a stylist was, but I guess it was in my blood. She found my calling for me.

I was always fighting for freedom, [the] freedom to express yourself through fashion, more than for fashion itself.
— Christine de Lassus

LASTBLOG: If you just sort of fell into the role of a stylist, I assume you had something of a trial by fire. Can you tell us a little about that?

CdL: The first job she gave me was for Windex! It was in a suburban, one story house, with huge glass panels and a car parked outside. There was a vanity, and I had to bring antique silver brushes, all the very cliché stuff. I spent my whole day polishing mirrors. So I told Michelle, the photographer’s agent, that this was not what I wanted to do. I want to work in fashion. She was representing this charming American fashion photographer that I started working with and ended up having a romance with, and when he moved back to New York, I moved with him.

But basically it wasn’t until I moved to America that I started doing serious styling. The first years, [all] I did was mainly cosmetic advertising. I worked with Irving Penn doing the L’Oreal cosmetics campaigns. I worked with Steven Klein, and Steven Meisel for Revlon, and also styled all the Elizabeth Arden campaigns for years. I was doing them all at the same time, just making sure they didn’t look like each other! And I was also doing a little freelance editorial for Spanish Vogue, mainly with Sante D’Orazio. But then one day I decided, “This is not what I want to do. I want to be an editor. I want to work for magazines.” So I packed everything, shipped all my belongings  to Paris, rented the apartment that I owned in Tompkins Square Park, and moved back to Paris, where I started working as an editor for French Elle and for Spanish Vogue. I really learned the job then; I really learned what I love to do. And  when I finally came back to America after seven years, I didn’t want to go back into advertising like [I had] in the past, I wanted to do editorials. But it was always hard for me to get into American Magazines, because my taste is much more European and creative.

I was [asked] to be the fashion director of a new magazine called Trace, which was more like a lifestyle magazine about youth culture. I’ve always been so interested in youth culture, so I just said, “Yes,” and I became their fashion director for almost 10 years. A lot of it was about mixing, mixing high and low, street and high end design. In those days — from about 2000 to 2008 — I could get anything I wanted from Dior, from Chanel, from all the big designers. I would just mix it with my own little throws to make it relevant, to make it how I think people should wear designer clothes. The Park Avenue lady that dresses head to toe in one designer was not relevant to me. I was kind of a pioneer of mixing street-wear with high end fashion, and using vintage. I’d actually started with vintage in 2000 because in the beginning [of Trace] I could not get big designers  to lend me samples, but I had access to this amazing collection of vintage from this generous woman I knew and she lent me anything I wanted. So I mixed vintage with clothes from new, young designers. For instance I would take an old Chanel jacket, but put it inside out and backside front, so the old Chanel label would show like a necklace, and I mixed it with a bottom from a young designer. So that was the way I started using vintage, and then everybody loved what I was doing with the magazine so they all started lending me whatever samples I wanted.

It was a very creative moment, a very joyful moment. We traveled a lot. Once a year we did a special on a country – Japan, South Africa, Jamaica, Mexico — all about the youth culture [there], so music, fashion, photography and art.

LASTBLOG: Do you still have a love for vintage and young designers today?

CdL: I use vintage rarely, as it’s become so hard to get, you have to pay a fortune to rent it, and it’s been sort of used and abused. But [I still love] young designers, and always loved creative designers. But it is not easy to place them in high end commercial magazines. I use them more in niche magazines like Style Zeitgeist

LASTBLOG: I read that, even as a child you really loved fashion…

CdL: I don’t know that I was actually so inspired by fashion as a child. I always remember that I had a doll, and I never played with the doll. I’ve always been a bit more of a tom-boy in my tastes. I had a pretty fancy upbringing, and this seamstress used to come to our home, and she made alterations [to our clothes] and our uniforms when we were little girls. So I had her make clothes for my doll. I wouldn’t play with the doll; I just wanted Mademoiselle Rousselet to make clothes for her.

But I did also rebel with fashion a little bit at the time. I was in this very straight Catholic school called St. Marie de Passy, and we had uniforms. But I fought so we could wear jeans in the winter when it was cold, so we could have pants rather than the ugly pleated blue skirt. I was always fighting for freedom, the freedom to express yourself through fashion, more than for fashion itself. When I was 10 years old I only knew Saint Laurent from my mother’s closet, but I was already fighting in my own way for the freedom his fashion gave to women.

LASTBLOG: On shoots now, how does collaboration work between you, the photographer, and anyone else working on the shoot? What form does it take?

CdL: It all depends if I choose the photographer, or if the photographer chooses me. FOR some magazines, the photographer works with the magazine and they ask me to style the story. For instance. when I did the cover of Flaunt with Elizabeth Olson, the magazine asked me to do it because they knew I had worked with the photographers. They had a concept they wanted to do, inspired by David Lynch’s movies . That was music to my heart, so I dived in and came up with a mood board that worked with their lighting and locations ideas.

When I worked with Harper’s Bazaar Latin America, for the cover story with Jacquelyn Jablonski, I was the one who proposed the photographer and came up with the concept. It was a special Haute Jewelry issue, so I chose to use only diamonds, but with  A younger more modern way of wearing them. How a chic, young girl would wear diamonds. Old rock-n-roll band t-shirts with leather jackets.

LASTBLOG: So sort of that high/low contrast you were talking about?

CdL: Exactly, more of that. I thought it was a little risky to do that for them, but it seemed to be what they wanted. I think at the end they really liked it, and of course for the cover we used a more elegant Pucci top and Chanel diamonds, so it was a little more commercially elegant.

LASTBLOG: So what do you see is the value of collaboration? What does it bring out that you couldn’t necessarily get by working on your own?

Just to see a McQueen show was worth all my years of styling. It was like “This is why I do what I do,” and my stories for the season were always, on some level, inspired by his clothes, because I wanted to make sure i could use his clothes in my stories.
— Christine de Lassus

CdL: For me that’s always been the joy and excitement of this business, collaborating with photographers. It’s like watching a movie; you’re creating your story. It makes everything so relevant because I love teamwork, and I wouldn’t be happy if I was just working on my own. The joy comes from the group, but it’s a danger to, because the weakest link is going to affect the results, so you need to have a great model, strong hair, strong makeup, strong styling, and strong photography to get a great result.

LASTBLOG: Could you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you take an idea and develop it into a final product?

CdL: Well, I guess it’s just a natural process. It starts by going to shows in Paris, that’s where I get my base inspiration. Seeing Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen. I used to attend his shows… Just to see a McQueen show was worth all my years of styling. It was like “This is why I do what I do,” and my stories for the season were always, on some level, inspired by his clothes, because I wanted to make sure i could use his clothes in my stories. He really took you places. He had the narrative, he had the story, he was so passionate about what he was doing. Now a lot of the shows are becoming less and less interesting, and more and more commercial, but you still get ideas. You see the girls, you see pieces that you like, and then they make you think of something. They make you think, “Oh, I’d love to do a story like that.” Then it’s just about impregnating yourself in your personal life, by going to museums and galleries, traveling and seeing the world, being involved with youth culture, [with] music, and going to see photography exhibits, going to see new and old movies. That whole mix just blends inside of you and then something will come out. It’s not looking at magazines that gets me inspired; they’re not nearly as exciting as they used to be.

LASTBLOG: You’ve mentioned a few campaigns you’ve worked on and a few photographers you’ve worked with, but I was wondering what some of the most memorable ones were.

CdL: Well, definitely Mr. Penn, because I looked up to him so much. I adored his work and he was such a gentleman, it was such an experience to work with him. I worked with him for about 3 years, so it was a pretty long time, and I just have so much respect and admiration for him and got so much joy from working with him. I’ve worked with so many great fashion photographers, and have had so many wonderful collaborations, that it’s not really about one that I favor over another one. It all depends on what project you’re doing. I really love to work with photographers, but particularly ones with a very good cinematographic eye. A photographer that takes you places, that has a universe of his own. Otherwise you are creating these stories, just to have a photographer take a polaroid of the clothes.

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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LASTLOOK App Store Description

Description for LASTLOOK as it appears in the iOS App Store.

LASTLOOK App Store Description

Description for LASTLOOK as it appears in the iOS App Store.

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Pushing Creativity

How Ji Lee Coaxes Creativity from his Audience

Written for LASTBLOG

Pushing Creativity

How Ji Lee Coaxes Creativity from his Audience

Written for LASTBLOG

As a creative strategist at Facebook, Ji Lee operates at the cross-section between creativity and technology, creating art that reflects both worlds. After a long career in the ad world, where he worked as creative director for agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi and Droga5, Ji moved into the tech sector in 2008, working as a creative director at Google before moving into his current role at Facebook at 2011. With a fondness for personal projects – many of which have a strong presence on the internet – Ji’s work takes on many modern cultural tableaux with a strong element of humor and a focus on collaboration and participation from his audience.

It doesn’t take a lot of people to create something amazing. It can take one or four people who are really driven and like minded to create something that has amazing meaning and value to millions of people in the world.
— Ji Lee

Born in Korea, Ji spent his first 10 years there unil his family relocated to Brazil for another 10 years. Ji attributes much of his sense of humor to his upbringing in these countries, with both cultures sharing a love for wordplay, taking something that already exists, and hijacking it by twisting the meaning. “Because language has been a struggle throughout my life, moving from place to place, I think I learned how to communicate in a way that is simple and visual,” says Ji, reflecting on how his background influenced him. “A sense of humor – something funny – is immediately connecting.” His intelligent sense of humor informs almost of all of Ji’s work work, using it as a simple way to inform people to complex topics in a way they can understand.

While much of his creative output is devoted to his professional career, the work Ji is most proud of comes from his personal projects, ones he undertakes on his own to flex his creative muscles. His love of personal projects began during his time in the ad world, taking them on in his free time as a way to do something just for himself while most of his creative efforts were directed towards meeting the needs of his clients. Though each project is inspired by something different they all come from a deeply personal place for Ji. His longest running project, “Word As Image” began as a school project when he was at Parsons – though Ji has continuing the project in his free time for over 15 years. “Famous Objects from Classic Movies” came from his love of film, while his most famous project, “The Bubble Project” came from his increasing frustration with the advertisements he was forced to create during his time in the ad world. “I try to make my life as fun and interesting as possible,” says Ji, “so I try to turn my life into playful games.”

Though Ji is the first to admit he prefers the fast-paced life of the tech sector to that of the ad world, he sees even more importance in frequently doing personal projects than ever before. “I still see them as a fun side thing, says Ji, “but I see them as a really important part of who I am as a creative person.” He tries to work on personal projects as frequently as possible, and considers them a major reason he’s had so much success in his professional life. “When you’re doing personal projects you’re taking care of all of the aspects,” says Ji. “From coming up with an idea, to how to develop that idea with other people, to how to fund the idea, how you package the idea, how you market it. You have to do everything yourself. Whereas working on a professional project, there are production folks, there are account people, there are clients-partners, there are media people, so you don’t tend to worry about all the aspects. Doing personal projects, I learn something about a different aspect every time.”

Exploring Ji’s work brings up a very interesting conversation about the nature of collaboration in the modern era. Though he’ll frequently collaborate with other creatives such as filmmakers, web designers, and photographers, Ji views each of his projects as a collaboration with his audience. To this end he focuses on making very participatory works, creating platforms for his audience to be creative. “Some people really appreciate that,” says Ji, “because maybe they just need a little push to do something creative. Maybe they just need a little push to express themselves.”

I think we live in an age of self empowerment and possibilities, the only excuse to not do something is yourself.
— Ji Lee

Even before his time in the tech sector, Ji has always seen the importance of technology to make these kinds of participatory projects. He’s frequently used technology to help connect his audience via the internet, showing them their various Bubble Project ads via Google maps, and collecting images of Mysterabbit on Facebook and Instagram. Not only do these tools allow him to collaborate with an audience he’s never met, but they allow him to work with creatives in other mediums while he gets the project ready for the public. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to create something amazing,” says Ji, referring to the small teams he works with in creating his projects. “It can take one or four people who are really driven and like minded to create something that has amazing meaning and value to millions of people in the world.”

Ji’s devotion to personal projects continues to produce frequent and interesting projects.  He’s spent much of the year placing clown nose stickers on ads around Manhattan as part of his “Clownify” project, and released a series of Word as Image style graphics for major events of the world cup. He’s also released “Word as Image” as an animated ebook, and regularly updates his website as he announces new projects. Constantly pushing creativity to his audience, students, and co-workers, Ji sees the current age as a great time for creative people. “I think we live in an age of self empowerment and possibilities,” says Ji, “the only excuse to not do something is yourself.”

Header Image Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg, Flikr

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Uncanny Qualities

An Interview with Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe

Written for LASTBLOG

Uncanny Qualities

An Interview with Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe

Written for LASTBLOG

Through their art, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe bring their audience into a fully formed world of their own creation. The two have been making large scale installations for the last 10 years, and have become renowned for the intense attention to detail they put into every piece. Walking through the rooms Freeman and Lowe create, visitors will find libraries full of completely original books and disused print factories and commercials that never existed, all to make the installations feel like a forgotten piece of history. Though they’ve been working on a new installation, they spoke to us via email about about their long-running collaboration, the research and details required to make their installations believable, and how their previous installations affect any new work they begin.

LASTBLOG: I read that the first project the two of you did together was a collage. How did you translate that into large-scale installations?

Jonah Freeman: The collages started as a way to amuse ourselves during a particularly hot and broke summer. As I recall a lot of the ideas for our first piece Hello Meth Lab In the Sun began to germinate during the collage process. We had both already done large works that involved architectural components so it wasn’t such a difficult stretch.

Justin Lowe: I don’t see much of a difference in the collage process and the installation process. It’s very easy to make that shift in scale, in some ways they both rely on extracting something and combing it with something else and being mindful of the sequences that are created.

JF: We have often referred to our process as a form of spatial collage.

LASTBLOG: Before you began working together, you each had done large-scale installations individually. Could you talk about some of those?

JL: They weren’t unlike what I’m doing now with Jonah, they consisted of a series of conjoined rooms, sometimes they involved iconic vehicles, like a van or an ice cream truck. Obviously once we started collaborating the scale got much larger.

JF: The works that I was doing were more spare in their outward appearance. A lot of my early ideas came from working on film and photography sets where elements of architecture and light were used as a transportative theatrical device. From this experience I was beginning to see the architectural interior as inherently theatrical. This notion seemed to translate to my movement through NYC. The entire city became a kind of interiorized architectural fantasy. A giant sequence of sets and dioramas. The early works were just articulations of that. A light. A ceiling, a wall, a floor, a piece of glass. Simple gestures. It owed a lot to Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman and other older artists using architecture as sculpture. But because it came from a cinematic background there was always the inclination to ramp up the detail and give the spaces a more distinct character. That ambition really took form in the collaboration.

LASTBLOG: Can you talk a little about your creative process, and how you take something from a concept to execution?

JF: The initial idea can come from almost anywhere – a room we’ve passed through, a movie, a joke. The process usually moves to a specific type of room that holds our interest. Often it’s because of its link to a specific cultural group – like the hippie commune or the meth lab or the uptown apartment. When it comes into creating a sequence of interiors it is often a process of creating a disjunctive difference between the various interiors -Whether it’s historical, tonal or class difference. A configuration that creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Again this strategy goes back to a movement through the city where you are constantly experiencing a kind of architectural cut and splice.

JL: We have been living in the same city for a long time and have taken notice of a lot of the same things, so there are shared reference points that all have the uncanny potential to be used as components in the discussion stage, there’s a lot of taking photos and image searches on the internet to get all of the nuances and particulars of these environments cataloged for what will eventually be a rather extensive document with a descriptive  paragraph and name for each room, a birds eye view of the lay out of the installation and how one passes through it and then of course there’s the budget which always answers a lot of questions. I imagine it must be very similar to producing a movie.

The ideas are never too big, the budgets are too small.
— Justin Lowe

LASTBLOG: You’ve said that you get lots of your ideas from (among other things) YouTube videos. What were you watching when you thought of “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun?”

JL: When I was at Columbia Andrea Zittel came by as a visiting artist and we were talking about Joshua Tree and her test site projects. it never takes to long to move from the desert to meth so, quite quickly we got there. and I was just thinking initially about a meth lab in the sun and later was joking around with the lyrics of that Neil young song hello cowgirl in the sand , which turned into, hello meth lab in the sun. as far as you tube is concerned, I don’t really remember getting into that until black acid co-op for the commercials in the basement china-town room.

JF: I don’t remember YouTube being so central to the process. The majority of the research for how the room is going to look is done through going out and taking pictures of the environments we are interested in. Granted meth labs were harder to get access to so the Internet played a bigger role in that particular environment. The conceptual underpinnings always require a lot of research whether its books, movies, internet and subsequently youtube. In general there is a real panoply of research sources for each project.

LASTBLOG: So much of your work seems to pull inspiration from specific points in history, such as early 60’s California drug culture or Kowloon walled city. How much research do you do when creating your stories preparing your installations?

JL: There is a lot of research, especially when it comes to architectural details of the environments.

JF: Yeah it gets exhaustive. Once an identity of an interior is decided upon there is no end to the information collected. We could make several books with our research archive.

LASTBLOG: Stories and the calculated reveal of those stories always seem to be central aspects of your installations.

JF: The narrative component came about as a support structure for the environments. As a kind of guide or starting point for what to make. The intention was to have these narratives be latent in the work. It wasn’t crucial to the experience but if one wanted to delve deeper there was plenty there. The piece could take on a fractal quality. But we are making, first and foremost, a form of sculpture that is meant to be experienced in a physical, material sense.

We want it to have the quality of the uncanny. You know it but it’s different – like traveling through a foreign country might be.
— Jonah Freeman

JL: The stories are an on going result of constant discussion and reading , there’s always a bit of fact within the fiction, sometimes its as simple as changing names and/or places or a kind of cut up method, I once did a project with 8,000 paper back books, I kept all of the covers, they continue to be useful

LASTBLOG: How much work goes developing those stories before you start on the actual installation?

JF: They have been different with each piece. Hello Meth Lab In The Sun did not have a traditional narrative. We started with three specific types of space: the meth lab, the commune, and the uptown museum/home. There were bits of story that emerged almost as speculation like “who would have lived here? What would have happened in this space?”. But there was no story. With Bright White Underground we started with a fully formed narrative that informed each part of the process. Because the show took place in a home in a residential neighborhood in LA and because R.M. Schindler designed the building and he was a famous architect there was a lot of quirky baggage to deal with right off the bat. So we decided to invert that and develop a parallel history for the building. This history involved a lot of things we were thinking about at the time – mostly the history of psychotropic drugs pre-countercultural revolution. Stray Light Grey was kind of somewhere in between the two. We had been reading a lot of science fiction so elements of that drifted into the conception of the work. The practice of working with parallel narratives and reworking historical narratives had led us into to the realm of speculative fiction. This brought out something that was latent in the work – the other worldliness of the experience. With Stray Light we decided to turn up the volume on that aspect which meant shifting all these familiar, banal architectural environments into something that was dislodged from everyday life. Back to the cognitive dissonance idea. Concrete narratives emerged but it wasn’t a story in the same way Bright White was..

LASTBLOG: Where do you get ideas for characters like Dr. Cook or organizations like The Artichoke Underground? Are they based off real things?

JL: Yes they are all based off of real things, there’s a book called acid dreams that chronicles the governments use of psychedelics, but once again names have been changed, characters combined, cities re- imagined.

JF: We want it to have the quality of the uncanny. You know it but it’s different – like traveling through a foreign country might be. There is an underground train of thought that links all these pieces. With Hello Meth Lab we were concentrated on how meth culture, or the lack there of, was linked to the idealism of the 1960’s counterculture. How the utopian ideas of drop out communities could have drifted into a nihilistic escapism. Dropping off. This line of investigation led us into the climate of the cold war- the paranoia, the surrealism, the emerging media dominance. The golden age of Science Fiction was during the cold war perhaps because reality was getting so strange and speculative. What if they drop these bombs that will destroy the planet? What if we move to outer space? It goes on from there. The heady times didn’t end.

LASTBLOG: How do you make sure your ideas can be executed? Does the idea ever get too big?

JL: The ideas are never too big, the budgets are too small.

LASTBLOG: Have you ever found a story you’d like to tell, but could not figure out a way to tell them in the form of an installation?

JL: In some ways everything gets in there, but not always to the degree I’d like, or some ideas expand at the end and re surface in the next project.

You could spin out on the linkages if you wanted to. Get real paranoid about it.
— Jonah Freeman

JF: I don’t think we are telling stories. We are referring to stories or historical narratives. But the act of moving through these spaces is not about being told a story. It is a spatial experience. It is about seeing objects in space.

LASTBLOG: When speaking about “Stray Light Grey,” you referred to the initial room as a the “table of contents” for the entire piece. Why did you decide to adapt this technique for this particular show?

JL: the entrance to the installations up to now have been a logical extension of the neighborhood they are in, so for Chelsea obviously we started with an art gallery. within this gallery were a series of paintings that in some ways all contained elements of what was to come in the subsequent rooms. This was done in an effort to relay a lot of information in a subconscious way that would unfold as one proceeded and became more familiar with the signs, also we knew some people may simply take this first room as the only room and not go on, so you in some ways it seemed important to imply what lay ahead.

JF: Yeah we always like to drop in leitmotifs for the visitor. If they want to concoct a reason why these supposedly disparate rooms are linked the material is there.

LASTBLOG: You’ve mentioned that you always take where the installation will be located into account when coming up with any given piece. How might something like “Stray Light Grey” be different if it was located in Nebraska as opposed to New York City?

JL: If stray light grey was in the movie Nebraska its entrance would be the bar.

JF: Yeah something like that. A car dealership maybe. A car dealership that is also a bar inside a Best Buy.

LASTBLOG: Several themes such as psychedelic drugs, counterculture, crystals, and the point when things fall apart, seem to repeatedly pop up across various installations. Would you say your works are thematically linked?

JL: Yes our works are thematically linked. Black acid co-op – bright white underground-  stray light grey. That’s just the titles.

JF: You could spin out on the linkages if you wanted to. Get real paranoid about it.

LASTBLOG: When speaking about your work, people consistently mention the attention to detail you put in every installation. How important is this to you? How would you say it effects the execution of your ideas?

JF: It is crucial to the work that each space feel like a room that exists. Not a set. So we do whatever we have to make that happen. Usually rooms or materials that have already been in use are the method of choice.

JL: it is very important and it is exactly the vehicle to transmit the ideas. so if it’s a store, we make our own products that have their own language and references. take cereal boxes or dr. bronners bottles for instance,  they all convey a lot more than just the ingredients. and there are many sides of the package to add information.

We need to find someone that knows sign language.
— Justin Lowe

LASTBLOG: The two of you have been working together since 2007, how would you say your work has evolved since then? Do you keep each other in check creatively?

JL: We are able to work much faster now. We were just asked to do a large work.  We were able to come up with the idea and source the material and get a crew together in 3 weeks with very few problems. 6 years ago it would have been much more daunting.

LASTBLOG: How does collaboration effect the stories you decide to tell?

JF: Again it’s not really about telling stories but I would say the crucial part of these projects being collaborations and not solo works is the merging of different sensibilities. It always comes out of a process of discussion. I would say our principle medium is fiction but our principle method is discussion. We get something more wildly varied and unexpected than might happen on our own. This is crucial for the success of these pieces. It is a perfect vehicle for collaboration. You can almost have a solo practice within the vastness of the larger piece.

LASTBLOG: Would you say your past work influences future installations? How?

JF: There is always an overlap. They are distinct pieces but they could very easily be one giant piece.

LASTBLOG: I noticed that the name “SanSan” shows up in both “Stray Light Grey” and “Artichoke Underground.” Are the stories in your work connected? Do they occupy the same world?

JL: Yes they are part of the same world, San San is a place and the Artichoke Underground is a group.

JF: They most definitely occupy the same world. The idea of the parallel has been crucial to every piece and continues to be.

LASTBLOG: If so, how might that world grow in future works? Do the characters and organizations influence one another?

JF: There is no foreseeable end to this process. The associative train of thought that has been the basis for these works just keeps going. The parallel world is really just a bracketing device that allows us to take on a wide variety of ideas.

LASTBLOG: Are there any storytelling techniques you’ve wanted to use in your work, but have not been able to as of yet?

JL: Yes, we need to find someone that knows sign language.

LASTBLOG: Have you ever thought of telling your stories in other mediums? Books? Film?

JF: Books and films are already a part of these pieces. I think if we did a proper film that would be a chance to actually tell a story and not have it swimming around under the surface.

Header Image Credit: Creative Exchange Agency

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Speculated Feeling

James Blake's "Overgrown"

A Review Written for the Indiana University Journalism Program.

Speculated Feeling

James Blake's "Overgrown"

A Review Written for the Indiana University Journalism Program.

On "I Am Sold," the second track on James Blake's new album "Overgrown," the British electronic musician quickly introduces the line “and we lay nocturnal, speculate what we feel.” It’s a powerful lyric, conjuring images of isolation with someone whom you may still be learning about (both mentally and emotionally), and seems to take on the entire emotional weight of Blake’s sophomore album as the musician weaves it through the song.

At only 24, Blake has already shown his acute understanding of the weight lyrics can command. Through a series of excellent EPs, singles, and an astonishingly strong debut album, he has frequently used seemingly simple lyrics that can be read into for hours on end. A cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Taste of You,” released on the EP “Enough Thunder,” seemed to solidify Blake’s folk sensibilities, his understanding of lyrics and the capabilities they hold.

On “Overgrown,” Blake again uses the simple, folk-tinted lyrics to develop achingly beautiful feel. Musically however, Blake appears to be at war with himself, trying to balance his various influences while still evolving his sound and making a record that will please his fans. Blake’s first record seemed to blend his influences – singer-songwriter folk, dubstep, and modern R&B – into something that was fresh and occasionally puzzling. It was as if he was a signer-songwriter for the modern age, substituting guitars and autoharps for keyboards and electronics. Though, for the most part, “Overgrown” gives off the same feel, it feels slightly less blended. Songs lean slightly towards one genre or another, still blending together to make Blake’s sound, but the ingredients that make up that final product are easier to detect.

This is not necessarily a misstep. In making more clearly definable songs, Blake shows his command over the various genres that shape him. On the album’s stunning single “Retrograde,” Blake’s voice seems to burst through ever intensifying synthesizers, shouting “suddenly I’m hit” in the style of any great R&B singer. The following track “DLM” simply features Blake, a piano, and a simple bass kick to establish a beat. Manipulated versions of the singer’s voice provide beautiful, ghost-like harmonies as he makes his way through a touching song about a rough patch in a relationship. “Digital Lion” and “Voyeur” delve more into the downtempo, dubstep sounds that so shape Blake’s electronic sensibilities.

The album is not without problems. At under 40 minutes, it’s far too short, and feels as if it ends before properly exploring some of it’s central themes of love, developing relationships, and personal expectations, let alone providing closure on any of them. “Take A Fall For Me” features a poorly executed collaboration with rapper RZA, with the Wu Tang Clan architect dropping lines like “Tight as the grip of the squid” and “Candle light dinners, fish and chips with the vinegar,” only to be saved from total oblivion by Blake’s claustrophobic, pulsing production.

When it shines however, “Overgrown” shows Blake at his absolute best. During the opening track, almost in anticipation of the fierce scrutiny he knows the album will undergo in the wake of his debut, Blake seems to almost beg his audience with “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.” He seems to reject the praise he’s been given, hoping only to make his music with some form of obscurity. As was the case with his debut release however, it is Blake’s talent for abstraction and deflection that make “Overgrown” such an interesting release. Through his command of lyrics, Blake manages to make every song on the record far more universal than those of his contemporaries. The songs may be personal, but they can adapt to the lives of the listener, deflecting their weight away from Blake, and abstracting the emotions behind them. In the end, Blake’s original meaning is less clear than it may initially seem, and so, like he suggests in “I Am Sold,” all we have left to do is speculate.


Header Image Credit: DesignCollector

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Pump This Shit

Hip-Hop's Modern Renaissance

An Essay Written for the Indiana University Journalism Program.

Pump This Shit

Hip-Hop's Modern Renaissance

An Essay Written for the Indiana University Journalism Program.

Hip-hop is currently in a state of flux. In the last year, the genre as a whole seems to have taken a step back to survey the landscape, to see what's changed in the time since it's origins almost 40 years ago. In short, a lot. For years, the most popular hip-hop has dealt with the celebration of excess; money, women, cars, power, these were the subjects most popular in the music that made its way onto the pop charts. If you wanted to find hip-hop that pushed the boundaries, you had to search, you had to find learn about underground movements that you weren’t necessarily ready for. Now however, the underground is making its way to the surface, meaning that some of the most acclaimed and talked about albums of the last year were also the ones that were pushing the genres boundaries. While this might seem worrying to hip-hop purists, this change in popularity not only allows hip-hop’s most talented purveyors to refine publicly refine the genre, but allows popular hip-hop to conquer new subject matter and reclaim topics that have been long since forgotten.

Much of hip-hop’s recent revitalization started when the label Definitive Jux (better known as Def Jux) was put on hiatus in 2010. Def Jux had served as one of few bastions of underground, alternative hip-hop, home to artists like Camu Tao, Aesop Rock, Murs and Cannibal Ox, all of whom developed on a unique sonic stye developed by label founder Jamie Meline, better known as El-P. After disbanding Def Jux, EL-P freed himself to spend more time on his own creative projects, and as a result produced two of the most impressive records of 2012, his own “Cancer 4 Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P Music.” Meanwhile, other label members scattered, and after being forced to find themselves new creative homes, opened themselves up to new creative directions.

EL-P’s “Cancer 4 Cure,” drowned in sound, produced in a way that echoes the claustrophobic, paranoid lyrics they provide background for. He drops pop culture references faster than any other MC around today, and spurts disdain for every other person in the world with zero afterthought. These themes have persisted throughout EL-P’s body of work, but here they mix with sentiments of death and isolation, ones that have recently been echoed by several other artists who once called Def Jux home.

Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” re-treads ground left untouched for years – politically driven, socially conscious hip-hop. EL-P, taking the helm of producer, mixes his own style with Killer Mike’s more traditional southern stylings. Mike, a long under-appreciated MC with roots in the Atlanta scene that produced artists like OutKast and The Goodie Mob, spits lyrics infused with as much political weight as early albums by Public Enemy and NWA. He lets everyone know early on that he “don’t make rap music, this is R.A.P.,” an acronym he devised for Rebellious African People. By the end of the record Mike has called out the war on drugs, compared Ronald Reagan to the devil, and explained how much of American music was pioneered and matured by african americans. It’s hip-hop’s sendup, a prediction that, one day, this music will be viewed with the same level of awe as any other.

Aesop Rock, one of the many artists displaced at the close of Def Jux, has long been praised for his lyrical deftness. He has always been able to somehow be clear and abstract simultaniously, and throws out so many complex words so fast, listeners often lose track of what’s going on at any given moment.On “Skelethon” his endeavor from 2012, Aesop spends much of his time angry or depressed. Much of the album is very isolationist, without any guest appearances from other rappers, and themes of death and loneliness which permeate the entire work. His frustration with the current scene of hip-hop, his identification with young  adults who are just finding their own identity in music, and by the end, a serious critique of his own shortcomings make this a truly unique album, one where the artist faces his shortcomings head on instead of constantly hiding from them.

In any other genre, none of these albums would be particularly noteworthy – even hip-hop has seen hints of these emotionally honest, self conscious stylings in its past. The difference here is who’s making it. Each of these artists have grown up in a world where hip-hop has always existed. They remember when The Wu-Tang Clan first released “Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers.” They all bought Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” when it was first released. They came of age as hip-hop did, and now can successfully re-define the genre without seeming preachy or disingenuous. They’ve taken hip-hop, a genre they’ve loved for years, and turned it into a genre that is as much about self expression as any other. If this trend continues, we wont be listening to hip-hop about cars and money in 5 years time – we’ll be listening to hip-hop that is just as un-guarded and emotionally honest as music of any other genre.


Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons