Word on the Suite

With flash, hip-hop echoes rock’s golden age.

When rock was at its peak in 1972, Americans earning the equivalent of $1m a year took just over 1 per cent of national income. In 2010, this group’s share of national income had grown to almost 10 per cent. At the same time, the average tax paid by these top earners almost halved. The rise of Jay-Z’s “new black elite” reflects the growth in numbers of the super-wealthy. But the opulence that he and West flaunt also reflects the growing estrangement of those at the top from the rest.

Delta Dawn

“There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars. And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.”

How Chicago House Got Its Groove Back

A look at Chicago’s DJ culture in the ’90s.

One day in 1997, Sneak promised his friend and fellow Chicago DJ Derrick Carter a new 12-inch for Carter's label Classic, then spent hours fruitlessly laboring over a basic, bustling four-four beat. Finally, Sneak gave in and smoked the J he'd had stashed for later in the day. When he came back inside, he carelessly dropped the needle onto a Teddy Pendergrass LP, heard the word "Well . . . ," and realized, "That's the sample, right there." He threaded Pendergrass's 20-year-old disco hit "You Can't Hide From Yourself" through a low-pass filter to give it the effect of going in and out of aural focus, creating one of the definitive Chicago house singles.

Who Was Cowboy Neal?

Neal punctuated Jack’s riffing with his “yesses” and “that’s rights,” head bobbing on his neck like a novice prizefighter’s. After four years of New York nihilism and intellection, Neal – wiping Jack’s face with his handkerchief – Neal – who looked so much like Jack himself, an athlete like Jack – celebrated lover of women and sharer of Allen’s passionate dark soul – finally the long-lost brother who said, “Go ahead, everything you do is great” – “a Western kinsmen of the sun” – “a wild yea-saying over-burst of American joy.”

The life and myth of Neal Cassady, Beat companion and muse for Kesey, Wolfe, Kerouac, Ginsberg, The Grateful Dead and more.

L.A. Weirdos

On singer-songwriters Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks.

I get the sense that the labels' attitude toward these guys wasn't altogether different from a parent's attitude toward gifted children: Get them through the system, but make sure to give them a clean little corner to doodle in and pat them on the head when they show you what they've done, whether you understand it or not.

Guns N' Roses: Outta Control

On the road with the band:

Axl Rose is carrying on like an Apache. He stormed into his home state for a concert and compared the fans there to prisoners at Auschwitz. He showed up two hours late for a New York show and launched into a tirade against his record company and various other institutions, including this magazine. He steamrolled into St. Louis, and before he left town, a riot had broken out. During an encore in Salt Lake City, he got ticked off because the Mormons weren't rocking and said, "I'll get out of here before I put anybody else to sleep." Then he did.

Ring My Bell

A history of the cell phone ringtone.

Many recent hip-hop songs make terrific ringtones because they already sound like ringtones. The polyphonic and master-tone versions of “Goodies,” by Ciara, for example, are nearly identical. Ringtones, it turns out, are inherently pop: musical expression distilled to one urgent, representative hook. As ringtones become part of our environment, they could push pop music toward new levels of concision, repetition, and catchiness.

Bruce Springsteen's SXSW Keynote Address

Delivered at the Austin Convention Center on March 15, 2012.

In the beginning, every musician has their genesis moment. For you, it might have been the Sex Pistols, or Madonna, or Public Enemy. It's whatever initially inspires you to action. Mine was 1956, Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic, that you did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self.

Being James Brown

A profile.

When we're introduced, I spend a long moment trying to conjugate the reality of James Brown's face, one I've contemplated as an album-cover totem since I was thirteen or fourteen: that impossible slant of jaw and cheekbone, that Pop Art slash of teeth, the unmistakable rage of impatience lurking in the eyes. It's a face drawn by Jack Kirby or Milton Caniff, that's for sure, a visage engineered for maximum impact at great distances, from back rows of auditoriums.

Pavement: The Return of the Heavily-Favored Underdogs

Stylistically speaking, in terms of clothing, they arrived in shirts and pants and shoes (there’s really no other way to say it). They had haircuts, but it didn’t really look it. While other bands were mumbling or over-enunciating their dreary positions or penny-candy philosophies, Pavement kind of screamed for a generation. But they did it in a way that was so deeply American that it was almost Scandinavian.

Playwright Will Eno profiles the band and their cult as they grow up and prepare for a reunion.

Radiohead's Runaway Guitarist

On Jonny Greenwood:

Greenwood is an anomaly: a musician who made his name with a rock band and who is now embraced by the modern-music establishment as an actual, serious composer. The night before the Alvernia session, he was onstage in an aircraft-hangar-size room at a steel plant in Krakow, performing the minimalist composer Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” for an audience that included Reich himself, as part of a weeklong new-music festival, Sacrum Profanum. (Reich is a fan; he praises Greenwood’s decision to have the string section play with guitar picks on “Popcorn Superhet” as “the first new approach to pizzicato since Bartok.”) He wasn’t the only performer at Sacrum Profanum with pop-music credentials — the bill also included the techno provocateur Aphex Twin and Adrian Utley, from the trip-hop band Portishead. But he was the only guy from a superfamous rock band whose singer has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Björk’s Big Bang

The artist discusses her latest record, Biophilia, science and music education. 

Up until she developed a vocal-cord nodule a few years ago, Björk made a point of not investigating how that instrument worked. “With arrangements and lyrics,” she says, squinting over her coffee, “I work more with the left side of my brain. But my voice has always been very right brain. I didn’t try to analyze it at all. I didn’t even know until I started all this voice work, two years ago, what my range was. I didn’t want to let the academic side into that—I worried the mystery would go.”