Stockholm Syndrome; Is the Swedish Pop Music Scene Taking Over?

Sweden has been churning out some amazing indie + electronic pop artists in the last decade. Robyn, Lykke Li + Icona Pop are just a few acts that come to mind that eschew a cookie cutter paradigm.  All of them are quite unique in terms of their fashion aesthetic, artistic direction and in how they court fame (or don’t!) in comparison to their North American counterparts. Add to that a comparative approach to their experimental musical styling’s—and one has to think…is there a Swedish Pop sound?

 From Left to Right Robyn Top Right Lykke Li, Bottom Right Icona Pop

Little Dragon’s lead singer Yukimi Nagano who hails from Gothenburg, Sweden has candidly admitted that she’s heard rumblings about a “Swedish scene” but she doesn’t really know what that means? In fact Nagano would readily tell you how influenced she and her band mates are by American R&B + Hip-Hop!

A Swedish EDM scene? Top Left: Swedish House Mafia Bottom: Little Dragon Right: DJ Avicii

When Feist made her 2nd album Let it Die in 2003 there was much ado about the fact that she was Canadian but that she recorded it in Paris. The media’s fascination with trying to equate her new record with the romance of Paris, or the crème brûlée’s and other cliché’s about the Paris ‘sound’, left her rather annoyed. “It all depends on what street you walk down, or who your friends are or how you spend your time…” said Feist to me in an interview many moons ago. “And the funny thing was that [I hardly went out in Paris, and stayed very insular when I made that album,] so the fact that music journalists heard the ‘French influence’ in Let it Die was news to me.”

Cue tape to 2006-2007 and there was a huge deal being made about the cabal of ‘English songbirds’ like Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Duffy, Corinne Bailey Rae, Kate Nash + Adele.

The Way They Were…The English Song Birds of ’07

It could have been argued that Amy, Duffy  Adele all had a similar retro sound…but is it really fair to play this comparison game? Who does it benefit? The artist? Or is it a tactic used to spoon feed an untapped audience? All music journos (guilty as charged!) have played the comparative or geography game once upon a time too many, but in today’s competitive digital landscape with click bait run amok—a ‘hook’ or ‘slant’ sometimes means the lifeblood of ones piece.

I think artists are the sum of all their parts and not necessarily just where they have lived or where they choose to record an album. Two people can have VERY different experience at the same party in the same city on the same night! I think trying to bulk one city or one country together towards a musical movement is probably the result of lazy music journalism. Sometimes it is a valid label—there have been many concept albums made based upon a place or its influence on the artist (think the Beatles + India!) and there is no doubt that in the early 90’s there was a very real Seattle sound—but it’s not a one size fits all moniker. I’d sooner say there is a Stockholm scene or a sound, rather than try and lump an entire country into its own sub-genre. *Lykke Li + Little Dragon are not from Stockholm.

But on that note tangent there is a new artist from Stockholm, Sweden whose album has become the soundtrack tied to memory (I love how music can do that) in my personal tapestry of Spring 2014. *Not all segues are seamless, apologies, dear readers!

On May 3rd I was at the kick-off event for Toronto’s Canadian Music Week (CMW). Due to bad weather, the evenings performing artist MIA was reassigned to a small club venue as opposed to the original outdoor free concert. It was MIA’s smallest venue performance she’s done since she started out + lucky for me I was front row when I was treated to her opening act, Elliphant. I couldn’t decipher her accent,  I was convinced it was either German or Swedish and a quick Google search told me she was from Sweden. Aha!

She came out with this song 1st ‘Music is Life’, and let’s say she had me at ‘Hallå’.

She was extremely rough around the edges—looking like she just did 50 bong hits and hadn’t showered since X-mas, but I really liked her music! Her baby doll rasp combined with dance pop mixed in with some Hip-Hop, Dancehall + Reggae had me so intrigued! The comparisons to MIA were obvious, but Elliphant definitely had her own flavor going on.  

Elliphant

Elliphant at Tattoo Club Toronto May 3rd, 2014

I enjoyed her whole set list, but didn’t get fully hooked until I started listening to her music online and started watching her eccentric music videos. Elliphant’s album A Good Idea  was released in late 2013 in Sweden exclusively, but only until recently has the rest of the world (including myself) caught on! Her album is still only available in tactile version in Sweden, but her album can be found on iTunes here.  She’s worked with everyone from Diplo to Skrillex and Katy Perry is said to be a big fan.

A Good Idea

A Good Idea

Below are just a sample of the singles from A Good Idea that I adore, but really you should download the entire album—it’s mad brilliant!

 

 

Stockholm Syndrome?

So what have we learned today kids?

Is there a Swedish pop music movement happening? Is Stockholm, in particular a hot bed for forward-thinking pop music talent?

It sure seems like it, and I haven’t even mentioned the onslaught of other great artists who simply aren’t at the international level as the aforementioned—yet. One aspect that has to be fueling this deluge is the support by their government for independent artists through the Swedish Artist Council. Other Swedish mainstays like Nordic Playlist + Spotify have further helped to propel Scandinavian artists abroad. *Spotify is now currently available in Canada!

Spotify: Made in Stockholm Sweden; but of course!

Spotify: Made in Stockholm Sweden; but of course!

So, yes…without making any sweeping generalizations, there seems to be an exorbitant amount of Pop/Dance music coming out of Sweden lately, and consistently so, ever since the 70’s when Abba turned it out with their original brand of Europop Disco.

And just take a guess what city they were from?

And cue Dancing Queen in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

HållDans!

**UPDATE**

Relative newcomer Tove Lo (she’s written previous hits for Icona Pop + Cher Lloyd) dropped her poptastic album Queen of the Clouds [Universal/Island] at the end of September. Yes, she hails from Stockholm, Sweden and she’s the hottest artist of le moment, joining Katy Perry to open on the Australian leg of her world tour—a huge coup for an emerging artist.

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Download the album or heaven forbid grab yourself one of those CD thingamawhats? This album is all La Di Fricken Da + then some sugar.

XOXO                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The Pop Culture Rainman

Red Bull Thre3 Style World DJ Championships

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The Red Bull Thre3 Style 2013 World DJ Championships touched down in Toronto on November 4th, after months of anticipatory buzz.

21 DJ’s from around the world made the Thompson Hotel their nest for a week, participating in nightly elimination challenges where they put their lifeblood into action for the ultimate title — 2013 World DJ Champion.

Veteran DJ’s were on hand to headline the nightly competitions–the 21 contestants only had 15 minute sets each. Names like DJ A-Trak, Kid Koala, Skratch Bastid, Jazzy Jeff and Maseo were just a sampling of the titans in town to additionally judge the contestants, and offer up daily lecture series at the Thompson Hotel.

No stranger to the adage “you can’t dance at every wedding” I cherry picked which events or lectures spoke to me personally — and proceeded from there.

I first attended the lecture series that featured DJ Jazzy Jeff on November 6th and it was such a pleasure to listen to him wax poetic about his craft. I grew up loving his collaborations with The Fresh Prince (Will Smith’s early rap alias) and gems like “Parent’s Just Don’t Understand” and “Summer Time” were influential classics that shaped an entire generation of Hip-Hop fans (myself included).
Additionally, I saw him perform many times as a solo outfit in Montreal at the famed after-hours night club Sona, where he would blow everyone away with his signature style and epic turntable skills.

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DJ Jazzy Jeff

This lecture was not just a *glimpse* into the history books, but a linear timeline of his early days in Philly, to an intricate discussion of how he’s parlayed a 25+year career that he “never could have predicted.”

Here is just a sampling of his insights.

In West Philadelphia Born and Raised…”

We used to have a lot of block parties in Philly. I remember one of the guys called Disco Doc, and [he] would have a massive sound system–so he got a reputation from having these giant speakers that were two stories high. This guy was basically controlling everyone there through the songs he played. He changed the emotions and made everyone happy and I was looking at it from his perspective, and thought–I want to be like him!

Two Turn Tables with a Mic?

I didn’t have two turn tables for a very long time. Back then you got with a crew and you wanted to find the guy in the crew whose mom and pop had a really good job and bought it for him. His [DJ skills] could have sucked but in the crew he was a king. Everyone spent their own money on their own 45’s and it went from there.

Old Schooll Vs New School

Carrying records [in crates] made you better! You sat in front of your boxes and you thought out what are you going to play. You didn’t have a plan B.”

From Vinyl to Digital

“I was one of the first DJ’s on Serato [software]. And I remember [playing] and DJ’s were coming around just to see it. It was something new–this was ‘the microwave.’ You had to show them ‘hey I’m manipulating this just like a record. Technology doesn’t make you a better DJ. If you suck before Serato you suck after Serato. The only thing this does is allow you to travel around with your music collection [on the road].

Practice Makes Perfect?

“I know this is going to sound strange but I have never practiced. As a DJ the idea of improvisation is incredible. I kind of have an idea what I’m going to play, but I always leave myself room to just pick it up on the fly. Some of the best sets I’ve ever done were when I just closed my eyes and [see where it takes me].

Death of the Rap Group DJ

Who’s 50 Cents DJ? Who’s Jay-Z’s ? Where was the cut off? At what point in time did someone decide… ‘I don’t really need this guy?’

***

That night I attended the Virgin Mobile Mod Club for the evening competition.
Toronto-based DJ Starting From Scratch warmed up the crowd for the first hour.

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DJ Starting From Scratch

His forte is classic Hip-Hop and his skill set is so smooth, so FLUID, it’s difficult to even tell how good he is because his execution seems so effortless. He’s not overly animated with the crowd, but he has such an aura about him that he doesn’t have to be.

Metaphorically speaking, you could have hooked me up to an IV drip of his set and listened to him play ALL night long…happily.

Next up were Red Bull former champions 2011’s HEDSPIHN and 2012’s Four Color Zack who were playing in tandem–that everyone seemed to be lapping up–except for me.

I found them to be ‘messy‘ in their technical approach, their musical styles to be all over the map, and a little too self-satisfied with their comedy interludes that they would throw in between their sets. I wasn’t feeling the magic. Sorry guys.

Next were the 15 minute sets divided by four international contestants. They were to be judged on song selection, over-all style, crowd reaction and technical/turntablism skills.

It was riveting to see how in some ways geography tinted their performances, and yet at the end of the day how universal music truly is.

Well, for most of them.

First up was DJ Undoo from Romania.

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DJ Undoo had all the flavor and charisma of a wet blanket. He never once made eye contact with the audience, while his music barely struck a chord. Did someone forget to tell him he was on stage playing ‘live’ to a sea of hundreds of people? This was not championship league, by a long shot.
Lost in Translation table for one?

Next up was DJ Oli Dobolli from Croatia.

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His style was rather experimental. He played the famed Quincy Jones instrumental ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ which got this Canadian crowd amped up as it was the theme to the Canuk game show ‘Definition‘ and was also a huge sample in the Dream Warriors track ‘My Definition’. He also mixed Classic Rock into some Rap, some EDM, and at times some manic Dubstep plates which felt like a grenade was having rabbit sex with my ear drums.

All in all a fantastic set.

DJ Eskel83 from Germany was a bona fide performer in every sense of the word.

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From the second he started his set with Biggie’s “Hypnotize” he commanded everyone’s attention. His engagement and sheer CONTROL of the crowd was something that really set him apart. At times fist pumping and lip synching with such animation that bolstered the crowd to new energetic levels. Other times, putting finger to pursed lips, so that the audience could hear a specific transition or sample.

What a TRUE showman.

Last to the stage was DJ Shintaro from Japan.

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Another high energy performer, Shintaro started off his set with the theme to Super Mario Brothers, which was a cheeky ode to Japanese gaming culture, mixed in some impressive Hip-Hop tunes and some crazy hard-core Dubstep.

Grenades. Humping Rabbits. Oh My Ears!

In another caricaturized offering of his heritage, he played a traditional Koto inspired interlude–something he probably saves for his international dates. He’s in on the joke, which makes it even better, rounding out the song with his signature scratching skills. I swear I saw sparks come off the records, his scratching is that crisp.

I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I feel it’s part of his over-all allure to see this handsome exotic creature with a head of blond hair, almost albino pale skin, lip synch to some of the baddest rap tracks out there.

After some great transitions that included Queen’s ‘”We Are the Champions,” some Reggae and More Hip-Hop, he bookended his set by ending it with how he started–scratching in a syncopated awesomely synergized pace to the Super Mario Bros theme. “I see what you did there,” Host DJ Flipout would say.

*NB. Dj Shinatro ended up winning the 2013 championship title and I’m so thankful I was able to see him play ‘live’.

***

My next highlight was my sit down interview with DJ Maseo who to this day remains the official DJ for the rap outfit De La Soul I say this with intentional admiration as so many of the classic, integral rap groups of the 80’s and 90’s have dismantled or fled into obscurity.

While De La Soul went on to release 6 albums other albums, their original offering Three Feet High and Rising stands as their critically acclaimed triumph, teeming with creativity and a cornucopia of sampling that is considered a hip-hop masterpiece to this day.

Being asked to be part of these programs for Red Bull has been honorable and very inspiring,” says Maseo who describes the friendly atmosphere of Thre3 Style akin to “DJ [summer] camp.” I’m amongst all the ones I love and respect,” citing DJ Jazzy Jeff as the “ambassador of all ambassadors!”

While he is committed to mentoring a new generation of talent, he humbly admits that he is still a student who is learning. “I’ll never classify myself as a professor. These new artists have adapted something in their modern world with technology and it’s very relevant and significant. If there’s a generation gap then there’s a bridge that is truly being built! I’m feeling the same love in 2013 from a 22 year-old that I did in 1989 from a 22-year-old. It’s been a blessing.

While no stranger to the complexities of copyright — (De La Soul was sued by the sixties pop group The Turtles for using a sample from their 1969 hit “You Showed Me” for an interlude track on Three Feet High and Rising) and Maseo had some sobering words for Robin Thicke et al who are being sued for their mammoth hit “Blurred Lines.”

Based on the years of what’s been documented, you would think he would know better? So at the end of the day, he’s truly about to get what he deserves. He should have taken care of business. What’s publicly being said, and what’s going to be resolved, is going to be two different things. That’s what I know for a fact.

Talking with Maseo and enjoying his warm and affable company (and his signature bellowing laugh!) was a dream come true. I have always stated that ‘if you don’t know the album ‘Three Feet and Rising’ front to back and everywhere in between, you can’t know Hop-Hop!

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The Timeless Masterpiece

Like whipped cream on an already generous sundae, Maseo was kind enough to sign my personal copy which topped off the entire experience for me!

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Me, Myself & DJ Maseo!

Suh-Weet!

XOXO
The Pop Culture Rainman
 

Daft Punk ‘Random Access Memories’-Review

As cut throat and saturated as the modern music industry can be, every once and awhile an album launch can capture what seems like the ears of the entire listening public–eclipsing all other contenders for a pregnant pause.

For the month of May, that group was Daft Punk.

Riding on the coat tails of a strong initial release ‘Get Lucky’, the album Random Access Memories [Sony] which dropped on May 21st, landed at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold $339,000 copies in its first week–two firsts for the French musicians, whose 4th album is their most successful to date.

To call, RAM merely ‘music‘ does not do it justice, as it truly is a work of art befitting of an entry into 2013 time capsule for future generations to discover. The soundscapes are beyond brilliant, intricately layered, with theatrical and emotional subtexts weaving through each and every song. Sure, it’s electronic dance music with both disco and opera influences, but its also a blend of spoken word, sampling, and live musical performances with Daft Punk limiting their usage of electronic instruments to drum machines, a modular synthesizer, and vintage vocoders. I was very thankful to see that very few songs had the robo-synth vocals that are Daft Punk’s calling card, and instead chose very wisely from a thoughtful den of vocalists to carry off some of the album’s most memorable tracks.

The guest stars on this album, are not here to fluff their peacock feathers, they are part of the stew, this great big pot of ART STEW!

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