Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Live Review: De La Soul, Enmore Theatre, Feb 10

I've been to some concerts recently. And even had a good time at a couple, proving there is still life in the old dog yet. Writing about them, however, is another matter, but I did have to ease out the following as a favour to someone.

When De La Soul Is Dead was released in 1991, it was a strident deconstruction of everything that had defined the trio three years earlier on their debut 3 Feet High and Rising. That album saw them at the forefront of a strange new age for hip hop, one that involved fluorescent colours, advocated peace and compassion and had a surreal sense of humour. The daisy age phenomenon allowed De La Soul commercial success, yet some in the rap community deemed them lightweight, hippies, or worst of all, hip hop for white people.

De La Soul Is Dead was a cutting, ironic and relatively dark riposte to all that. It distanced them from the acts who followed their lead and returned them to the less exuberant, more profound territory of the pre-daisy years, with a sound more like Eric B & Rakim than the Jungle Brothers. Twenty years later, they are playing Enmore to pay tribute to this landmark release. The enthusiasm and the heart are all there, but they failed to honour De La Soul Is Dead, preferring instead to tread their well-worn path of dance-happy party music.

These days, De La Soul cruise around the world like the Harlem Globetrotters, performing shows that are more exhibitions of hip hop than anything original. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with that, aside from them being a little one-dimensional in their hell-bent desire to entertain, negating the changes of pace and overlapping samples that make their music so extraordinary. This was one of those typical shows, apart from the absence of Maseo, whose flight was cancelled from the US. Long-time producer Prince Paul filled in on decks.

True, they did play a number of De La Soul Is Dead’s best tracks, with Trugoy and Posdnous careering through ‘A Roller-Skating Jam Named ‘Saturday’’ and ‘Ring Ring Ring’, while 3 Feet High was honoured with ‘Potholes In My Lawn’ and ‘Buddy’. It was a good show, but anyone who came expecting something in the spirit of their fine second album would have seen its message swamped by the deafening sound of a good time.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Goodbye Pen Pusher

Around this time of year about five years ago I was still in the middle of what is increasingly turning out to have been a fruitless waste of time and money. In other words, my Masters in Journalism from London College of Communication. In the midst of this, I was offered the chance to contribute to a new London-based literary journal that had been set up by a pair of bright-eyed and pro-active young women working in publishing. The journal's title was Pen Pusher and back in 2006 its design was only a few cuts above your average campus lit-journal. Almost a chapbook (although it managed to achieve some degree of notoriety on the back of its front design being straight from the imagination of one Ricky Wilson of indie morons Kaiser Chiefs).

I contributed a few things to them in their early days. All of it the ignorant dribblings of a half-ambitious, sycophantic idealist enthralled by the premise of this new magazine. So the poor editors got lightweight and ill-informed opinion pieces on both Norman Mailer and JD Salinger, and then a little something on PJ O'Rourke. That was Pen Pusher's first year, and they have come a long way since then as you can see from their website.

Anyway, the other day they announced they were packing it in. Here is the email:

Pen Pusher was hoping to take the magazine kicking and screaming into the digital age as we informed you all last year... But sadly finance – our continuing lack of a grant or funding of any kind – and an ill-advised lack of interest in the digital world means we have taken the very difficult decision to cease publication.

We're older, no wiser, but yet feel it is time to move on to other projects.

Many thanks to everyone and anyone who has ever submitted, been selected as a contributor, been interviewed by us, supported, read, or even bought the magazine since we began as a free and modest wee thirty-two-page saddle stitch number we gave to our friends in 2006.

Apologies to anyone who has sent a submission – if you have provided postage we will return your work – otherwise there will not be a response; and apologies to those of you with subscriptions – we are unable to refund any remaining monies or provide old issues in lieu of those you were expecting to receive. Hate us for this if you like… or don't!

Once again many, many thanks to all who have been involved or supported us in any way. Best of luck to all aspiring writers and poets, and very best wishes,

Pen Pusher.

This is obviously a real shame
, as Pen Pusher filled a vital hole on the literary landscape, in its own small way. This was a publication accessible to both readers and possible contributors, worlds away from the stuffiness of the established journals and more inclusive than those that exist entirely within academia. It managed to be credible, approachable and it looked good, eventually. The other thing was that it actually managed to get read: its list of stockists was impressive and the launch nights of each issue were always well-attended. Over five years it built up a firm identity and a loyal readership.

This all begs the question of why exactly they could never get funding. It's not as if their profile wasn't high enough (more than once I read about Pen Pusher in national newspapers, and one time it was even featured on Radio 4, with the editors interviewed) or that the quality was inferior. Of course, anyone seeking arts funding might expect to be disappointed what with the economic panic of the last two years, but even before then Pen Pusher failed to secure funding. The Arts Council will have its reasons but the message it sends out to anyone wishing to launch a similar enterprise is stark: even if you support it yourself for five years and achieve a success you never envisaged when you started, we still won't help you out. Pen Pusher was not the sort of magazine that could have been bought by a publisher and, say, had a marketing team installed and gone for free distribution. So Arts Council funding was really its only chance.

It must be said that such brutal disregard doesn't seem to be the case here in Australia. Here I find half a dozen or so journals doing pretty well, such as Overland, Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara and others, and they get funding. It's true there's an awful lot less competition for arts funding over here, but I'd rather be in a landscape where you can breathe and look around than one that as so crowded as to be stifling.