THE #DOWNNOW PROJECT

The #DOWNNOW Project is my original journalism/storytelling and music series, conceived in Summer 2020 through my Chicago Music Ambassador role. Promoting the “Year of Chicago Music” began to feel increasingly tone deaf and out-of-sync during a crucial election cycle, the disruptive arrival of COVID-19, intense social upheaval for racial justice, and the convergence thereof.

The pandemic ultimately forced The City to suspend its celebrations, but The #DOWNNOW Project —as in, “It’s goin’ down now!” and “Are you down now?”— had already occurred to me as a way to continue showcasing Chicago music, while conscientiously addressing current times and issues.

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The project has since been recognized and awarded by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC —click “Chicago” on this NAT GEO Project Map— and Chicago DCASE (through The City of Chicago‘s “Arts 77” plan). #DOWNNOW logo T-shirts and face masks are available in the #ASCbrand store.

The project will present stories of healing and activism, and create movement anthems. My inspirations are the legendary Studs Terkel (a primary influence as a broadcaster/interviewer and social/cultural critic), and Chicago’s rich history of Black music activism (exemplified by iconic artists like Curtis Mayfield, Oscar Brown Jr., and The Staple Singers).

From underground to Ambassador

I’m happy and honored to be named a Chicago Music Ambassador, and to join the City of Chicago’s Office of the Mayor, its Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and its official destination marketing organization (Choose Chicago) in celebrating the Year of Chicago Music (2020), and the 35th anniversary of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago.

As a Music, Arts & Culture journalist, I’ve worked with some of Chicago’s most beloved media outlets. As a documentarian and multimedia artist, I’ve been supported by key civic arts initiatives and some of the city’s prominent arts organizations. And for years, prior to my current work, I was an active “true-school”  artist in the local hip-hop underground. So as a proud, almost lifelong Chicagoan, this new appointment is both appropriate and much appreciated. Click the pics or links for more info.

Jeff Baraka x KRS-One

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Diggin’ through my archives in March, lookin’ for that old Phife pic, I found several others (OutKast, Bam & Dres, Common), including more recent ones like these from a 2013 KRS-One interview. He’s one of my early influences as an MC (along with Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D and others) and this was a fun, informative conversation. There’s video somewhere, which I’ll post at some point, but check out the audio below and the dope, international “Hip-Hop is Hip-Hop”  music video.

 

Beats, Rhymes & Life / Rewind That

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I’m still processing Phife‘s passing last week (3/22), playing my A Tribe Called Quest collection and re-watching the Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary. I only met him a handful of times -the same way I met most of my hip-hop hero/peers during my active rap years, as an opening act or host of underground shows. But ATCQ was so big to me, that I’ve been impacted to contemplate my own life, mortality and art. There are lessons in Phife’s legacy.

He was my age and ageism in hip-hop is a tricky issue -notions and conflicts of reverence vs. relevance. It’s often come up in my meetings and conversations with the greats, through my TV/media work, and was a factor in my decision to almost completely suspend my own rap activity. But Phife’s passing (along with those of J-Dilla, Baatin, Sean Price, DJ Timbuck2, Praverb and others) reaffirms two major life lessons -take care of yourself and practice your passion for as long as you can.

I was really moved by Busta’s heartfelt Instagram tribute. Leaders of the New School and ATCQ both suffered youthful infighting and break-ups, so to see the members of both groups matured, reunited and recently rocking onstage was awesome. With Phife gone now, I can only imagine how much more precious that moment has become for Q-Tip and the other surviving participants. I’d still love to see a full Native Tongue reunion with Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Black Sheep, etc. Camaraderie, reconciliation and celebration of shared legacy are beautiful.

Common’s Instagram tribute was no less heartfelt, but it hit me differently because he recounted a shared memory. We were together in NYC when we first met ATCQ (and other favorite artists). I was once a member of the pioneering Chicago hip-hop collective* that included him, No ID, Twilite Tone and manager, Derek Dudley. Common’s post triggered memories of good times, but also of our own crew’s infighting and that I’m still often misrepresented (if not entirely erased) from his accounts of our shared history. Re-watching the BR&L doc (focusing more on Phife) reminded me that it’s exhausting to navigate complex, conflicted relationships with old friends you’d really rather build with.

I appreciate the early liner notes inclusions and contributions** to my small, independent releases. Today we’re always cordial and professional. The occasional shout out feels good and I’m open to new collaborations. I’m philosophical about my Mikey D-like rap status (too many aliases, group names and affiliations only helped my obscurity), but I’m blessed to have found other fulfillment and I’m happy to be in a place where I still feel creative and motivated. Real talk…

Thanks Phife, for the inspiring parallels and valuable lessons of your incredible journey. Rest in peace and power bro, salute.

“I never walk the streets think[ing] it’s all about me, even though deep in my heart, it really could be. I just try my best to like go all out, some might even say -yo shorty black, you’re Buggin’ Out!

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*shout out Sean Ross, Sean Lett, Dug Infinite

**featuring Common – Mic Illumination (96), Cryogenic (FR99) (96), Money For Dope (92) | produced by No ID – Invisible Ink, Soul Oasis, Still Consummate, TTGP remix (all 2002)

Keep Calm & Rock Well (one cool thing leads to another)…

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I caught the amazing Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali and her band at WTTW studios, during their recent Chicago residency with OTSFM and IMAN (click pic to enlarge). I checked them out online after, which led me to the cool Rhythm Planet program at KCRW.


I was familiar with the station’s eclectic music programming, but I started listening to its other shows. An interesting segment about logos and branding inspired the KCRW tee-shirt design below. It’s of course derived from the original British WWII graphic.

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Champion Legacy (Stay Fly)

In preparation for my Swiss Arts Residency, I decided I should start re-training myself as a beatmaker. I got inspired by the CREED movie and made this. The horns (obvious) and the guitars (not-so-obvious) are samples from Gonna Fly Now, the original ’70s Rocky Theme.

I call it Stay Fly, to salute the original (and composer, Bill Conti), but once I remembered the 3/6 Mafia jam of the same name, that became the subtitle. So here’s Champion Legacy (instrumental in standard 16 bar verse, 8 bar hook format). Click the pic to download (automatic on some devices) or stream via the player. Enjoy, hit me on Twitter

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JB x JBTV

JBTV is an iconic, Chicago music television program (and production studio), named for founder, host and executive producer, Jerry Bryant. Since 1984, he’s showcased some of the biggest names in modern rock, like Arctic Monkeys, Dave Matthews Band, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, No Doubt, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and many more.

I was brought onboard in 2010 as a co-host and producer to add some hip-hop, neo-soul, “world music” and other funkyness (my first booking was Senegalese great, Baaba Maal). During my brief run, I interviewed an eclectic variety of great guests, and established a strategic partnership with Red Bull Music Academy.