Photograph by John Paillé
So I was at a bar in Austin, TX the other day for SXSW and I see the usual suspect: this young woman in a headdress, all hipstered out and defiant. I slyly turn to her and ask, smirking a little, “Don’t tell me you’re 1/16th Native American? Is that why you’re wearing that thing?” She throws me a cocky glance and mutters, “Do I look Indian?” She in fact looks ambiguously Asian in the dungeon lighting of the intimate Hotel Vegas. She specifies she’s of South Pacific Islander origins, which doesn’t surprise me, but I glibly note that I never assume. She could have in fact actually been indigenous to the Americas. I mean, people take on interesting genetic traits post-colonization. Anthropology classes taught me as much, and being from Chicago you’d be surprised by the amount of natives sons and daughters scattered about the lands.
The reasons I approached this feather-clad hipstress, is cus, some of you might know, I have a history of going on long soliloquies about the misappropriations of indigenous culture in today’s music world. Have you seen Jamiroquai’s glittered out headdress or the military-plumed N.E.R.D. cover art from yesteryear? I’m sort of over all my begrudged angst about the issue and have moved towards a snide indifference. I think the affirmations of A Tribe Called Red, in the recent year have had something to do with my resignation. Sitting in Mexico City, I first caught wind of the bombastic stylings of DJ Shub, DJ NDN and more astutely, the visual craftwork of Bear Witness. For days, I’d run tracks like “I’m an Indian too” on loop. I’d watch Bear’s video work with devote awe, mesmerized by the deceptive simplicity and politicized poetry of the groups reclaiming history and images. A Tribe Called Red pummels the ears with an assertive affirmation of identity and a revitalization of authentic cross-culture sounds, their reinvention inspires beyond all words.
For their self-titled debut album, A Tribe Called Red presents a unique hybridity of distilled ethos, congealed emotions and an effervescent energy, that calls for nothing more than a patchwork of beats, like bodies bouncing to an innate, subconscious human rhythm. All shaman-esque mysticism aside, without the pretext of any eroding exoticism, I can proudly say, I’ve been waiting for this release for a year. I’ve been waiting for the chance to praise these artists from the safety of my ivory towered bohemia. “Electric Pow Wow Drum,” had me in a trance from the get go, and the potency of pile-drivers like “Red Skin Girl” just wrench at the body to rise, not unlike Rusko or Skream & Benga. The dubstep drones and Jamaican influences, the ethnomusicology at foot and the references to hip-hop and homage to electronica in this album, makes for one of the most uniquely woven releases to date. No one can claim to even come close to what A Tribe Called Red is doing, and has done. Simply put, the group has revamped and honored their culture, contemporized an often forgotten and forsaken segment of society and catapulted their concern and care for their people into the mainstream.
ATCR’s consciousness is unparalleled on heartbreaking dedications such as, “Woodcarver” in honor of police brutality victim, John T. William. But, more than politicized platitudes or rants, the way artists like M.I.A. or even the directness of underground activ-artists, such as Libyan MC, Khaled M, more than the coyness in Das Racist or the garish elements of Spank Rock the defiance in A Tribe Called Red, plays on the truest element of the revolution we once called hip-hop. Where A Tribe Called Quest left off, influencing culture through attuned intellectualism and lyricism, ATCR is picking up the pop-amnesia track, and renaming the game, evoking the past without reservations. This is how you change society, much more effectively than all my diatribes and articles hating on hipsters in feather-caps could fain to affront.
In keeping with all this free-love fanfare, A Tribe Called Red is releasing their debut album gratis for download, today! Get it on their site at www.electricpowwow.com and shake those feathers out of your hair for real. If you’re having trouble with the site, try the gang’s blog.