I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at email@example.com. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
This month, I’m departing from our regular format to present a series of special editions. Today in the newsletter, I’m handing things over to an old friend and colleague, Aaron Gonsher, who’s reviewed a handful of films—all about parties and partying—that are well worth checking out.
What appears to be a straightforward 2015 RP Boo music video in fact contains a much longer history and narrative of community persistence, celebration, and a scene’s evolution. Directed by Wills Glasspiegel, the short doc is set to Boo’s eponymous track—produced first in 2005, but presented here in altered and updated form—and follows him, the K-Phi-9 dancers, The Era crew, and more as they move with delightful focus and intention down Martin Luther King Drive on the South Side of Chicago during the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade.
Following a route that’s remained unchanged since 1929 and forms the lyrical backbone of “Bangin’ on King Drive,” the Bud Billiken Day Parade is one of the oldest African-American parades in the US—cancelled in 2020 for the first time in 91 years due to Covid-19—with all-day festivities that bring together a variety of youth and community organizations, including fierce dance performances by local crews in a number of styles.
You get a taster of many in five minutes or less, as Glasspiegel cuts between drone footage that captures the overall atmosphere and a cornucopia of characters with magnetic charisma. RP Boo appears with his usual infectious smile, but the real stars are the dancers: folks in the crowd, The Era crew, and especially the K-Phi-9 dancers, who are seen prepping their looks in a hair salon, wearing neon tutus and bow-ties with smart red tops emblazoned with the group’s name, and finally busting serious moves both synchronized and solo.
There’s a palpable joy in these performances, alongside markers of wider social struggle—a “Fight for $15” sign nestled in a statue’s arm appears and is gone in a flash—and recognition of all of the musical and movement innovations that developed along these streets. As the film’s director put it in a 2015 interview with Emilie Friedlander, “It’s as if the whole history of footwork is made visible at the Bud.”
One of several taglines attached to The Hip-Hop Nucleus, a documentary on the notorious mid-to-late ’90s hip-hop parties at the Tunnel, is an invitation to “Enter the club most people feared to enter.” A chaotic scrum of thousands that could stretch blocks from the entrance at 27th Street and 12th Avenue was just one reason why. Once inside, however, a more egalitarian atmosphere prevailed, with stars hanging by the bar and attendees hyped up by the wait rewarded with an unpredictable mix of the era’s defining performers, beats, big deals, and bigger beefs.
Directed by Choke No Joke, an in-house videographer, The Hip-Hop Nucleus features interviews with the club’s extensive security team alongside patrons, resident DJs, and the occasional well-known name, with an emphasis on stories from staff. This focus makes the film feel a bit like an insider’s instruction manual for making the most of a night. More music docs should highlight these day-to-day workers and undersung contributors, even though here it means less time spent on the club’s musical legacy in favor of personal war stories. Still, it’s strange to hear security talk about the club’s patrons primarily as sheep to be fleeced, with boastful tales of lifting chains, drugs, coats, and more.
Stirling Cox, the former head of security, attributes the Tunnel’s overarching vision to “a one-eyed white guy from Canada,” AKA Peter Gatien, who also owned the Limelight and was eventually deported. The doc is full of these apt descriptions, as well as easy comparisons for folks who don’t know hip-hop: the club is variously painted as “The Hip-Hop Woodstock” or “The Studio 54 of Hip-Hop.” There are also plenty of questions asked but never quite settled; among them, Who was the best resident DJ? There’s Funkmaster Flex, DJ Big Kap, and DJ Johnnie Walker Red to choose from. Guests also spar over the true Queen of the Tunnel: Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Eve each get their due.
You also get a treasure trove of footage and tantalizing clips of live performances that are unfortunately for the most part muted—alas, licensing. But you see a stonefaced Jay-Z cracking up at Beanie Sigel; Snoop and Dre getting an unexpectedly warm welcome; and the Lox dunking on the Shiny Suit era—archival footage that lets you momentarily catch the club’s electric vibe. It seems inevitable a Spotify or Netflix will make a slick podcast or documentary on the Tunnel, with even more live footage and firsthand stories. But they will almost certainly miss out on the intimate sense of place that comes from The Hip-Hop Nucleus capturing the stories of so many of the club’s essential workers.
In this subtle capture of Giséle Vienne’s extraordinary dance performance, Crowd, the first shot is of a woman’s muscular calves caked in mud above sparkling sneakers, as she moves in slo-mo across the stage with a faraway look in her eyes. There’s an immediate feeling of familiarity as 14 other dancers in rave-ready outfits converge: You’ve been to this party and you’ve danced with these people, perhaps even spent your life moving alongside them, even though you’ve never met.
Crowd is a glacial yet exhilarating work choreographed by Vienne and documented/directed with elegance by Caroline Detournay and Paulina Pisarek, who filmed it over two live performances in 2017 and 2018. It depicts a night both exhausting and illuminating, slowing the dancers to a crawl and reveling in all the excitement and complexities of an indelible night out. Bodies move as if in rewind or fast-forward, reliving moments while skipping through the high- and lowlights.
The camera zooms in on individual interactions within a teeming mass, accumulating significance through tiny details—whether a Norma bag that gives a hint as to the location, a bloodied nose, a banana devoured, a moment of gay panic, collars pulled and clothes discarded. A narrative of unrequited desire gets colored in as the night goes on and inhibitions lift. The movement is so slow, juxtaposed with music that’s so fast, that it gives you time to absorb the entire cast of characters and their range of emotions as they exchange meaningful looks with the air of friends reunited on a dancefloor.
As the dancers contort with desire, pleasure, and pain, outstretching their arms and tilting their heads back in (on?) ecstasy, there’s an unmistakable sense that they’re marionettes—not unexpected, given that Vienne’s background includes time at a prestigious French puppetry school. There are also thrilling moments when it seems like the dancers momentarily transcend their puppeteer’s controls.
It all plays out against a playlist of electronic music classics compiled and mixed by the dearly-departed Peter Rehberg of Editions Mego, a playlist that leans heavily on the spacescapes of Underground Resistance and achieves lift-off with the appearance of tracks like Drexciya’s “Wavejumper” and Manuel Gottsching’s “E2-E4,” while the timeless ticking clock of Global Communication’s “14:31” provides a soft landing.
From its tentative start in 1999 through to its spectacular crash in 2016, the festivals known as All Tomorrow’s Parties were a moveable feast of special performances and interactions, pioneering a curatorial approach that has since become wholly absorbed into the industry as a cliché. In a recent oral history of ATP by Daniel Dylan Wray for VICE, co-founder Barry Hogan describes wanting artists to curate the festival like they were making a mixtape, and this documentary, compiled from crowdsourced footage over several years of the festival, is an admirable representation of that sensibility. Directed by Jonathan CaouetteIt, it’s convivial, well-lubricated, and bittersweet, like remembering a long-lost friend while lifting a drink in their memory.
Stories from ATP are legion. You could crowdsource another oral history from the subscribers to this newsletter alone; the documentary pays ample attention to the dilapidated holiday camps where the festival was hosted, peeking inside worse-for-wear chalets with curtains that look more suitable for wrapping bodies than blocking the sun. ATP’s well-deserved reputation for bookings that ignored genre and rejected predictable momentum is visible as they bounce between the likes of Saul Williams, Gossip, Shellac, the Dirty Three, and Animal Collective, with Daniel Johnston performing unamplified outdoors, Eye from Boredoms seemingly playing a lightbulb, and Roscoe Mitchell shouting out the Minehead seagulls. A couple makes out while Seasick Steve thanks Portishead—who he doesn’t know anything about—for inviting him. David Cross bumbles through a stand-up bit on Jesus that draws a heckler, who he later confronts on-camera, with the guy defending himself because Cross was “dissing the J-man.”
Importantly, it’s not just the performers onstage who get screentime. ATP had no VIP areas, and this doc likewise doesn’t really differentiate between moments of musical beauty happening onstage or off—whether it’s a gurning fan playing the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps,” a spontaneous band forming in the chalet, or multiple festival-goers bashing pots and pans as they head towards the beach at sunrise. There are also archival clips of Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Jerry Garcia that resonate with the festival’s collaborative and democratic aesthetic, the last of those three dreamily declaiming his preference for parties that feature “no headliners—just music.” One of the doc’s cinematographers, Vincent Moon, has spent the better part of the last decade documenting sacred musical rituals around the world, but ATP doesn’t feel so far off.
Documentaries don’t often come with a disclaimer to watch on a loud soundsystem, but Talkin’ Headz - The Metalheadz Documentary deserves one. Released in 1998 and directed by John Klein, it enlists a large cast of characters to tell the story of the label and their experimental yet energetic Sunday night parties at Blue Note in London. A snapshot of the cultural moment/movement when jungle crested and drum & bass surged, it’s a hyperactive and endearing hour of jump-cuts, studio visits, and positivity.
There are interviews with nearly every major Metalheadz artist, including longer explorations with Goldie, Grooverider, Ed Rush & Optical, and Lemon D as they share insights into their creative tactics and approach. Storm & Kemistry are a notable exception—despite the fact that they were running the Metalheadz label by early 1995, neither speaks in the documentary for reasons unknown. Nonetheless, it’s a special treat to see the likes of Dillinja cook up some classics in ancient-looking studios.
There are also plentiful moments of levity, whether it’s Goldie eating a pie before the Metalheadz crew goes go-karting, Grooverider mooning the camera before a pick-up football game where Noel and Liam Gallagher are inexplicably spectators, or Lemon D gently rejecting the nastier-than-thou competition of accelerating BPMs and discussing the difference between making sounds vs. making music. At one point, DJ Lee describes the Blue Note parties as “school for drum & bass,” and this documentary is a strong start to what should be a longer syllabus.
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Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…