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Mos Def, The Ecstatic

Hip-hop that looks beyond the ’hood is back

That the creative stamina of the average rap act - even discounting the possibility of an untimely death - is so easily sapped makes a certain amount of sense. Rap is all about burning your creation myth into the wider consciousness as quickly as possible, arriving in a blaze rather than lingering on in the half-light. Furthermore, it is hard to think of any other musical form where talent, energy and originality are consumed at such a frantic rate, where the themes are so narrow yet the lyrical mass so staggeringly dense.

Little wonder most rappers fail to stay focused on the day job long enough to establish a hefty body of quality work. While uppity pop stars have chafed against their innate disposability, worrying about dubious notions such as "legacy" and "posterity", rap artists stay true to their entrepreneurial instincts: say your piece, get rich quick while the going's good, and move on to the happier hunting grounds of film, TV, fashion, or label management, perhaps with the odd quickie album thrown in. Diversifying, endorsing, rebranding - it's all showbiz, after all. The downside for those of us who, rather old-fashionedly, want good rap musicians to keep making good rap records is that the law of diminishing returns becomes inevitable.

Which brings us to Dante Smith, aka Mos Def. In the decade since his startlingly original solo debut, Black on Both Sides, Brooklyn's socially conscious rapper has ambled down a well-trodden path. Sporadic, disjointed album releases - culminating in 2006's terribly lacklustre True Magic - have played second fiddle to an increasingly successful acting career on stage and in film. A co-starring role in Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations suggested he had his eyes fixed on celluloid fame.

There's no shortage of evidence proving that most rappers never fully return from this kind of exile, which makes the sheer verve and quality of The Ecstatic all the more wonderful to behold. A sample of Malcolm X's 1964 speech to the Oxford Union - riffing on "change", the buzzword du jour - leads into "Supermagic", a crackling opening statement which, in just 150 seconds, manages to cram in references to everything from the celebrated Turkish musician Selda Bagcan to Mary Poppins. It's an exhilarating introduction and a firm declaration of intent. This is a politicised album with a truly global outlook, not simply in terms of the wealth of musical touchstones - samples come from sources as diverse as Ihsan al-Munzer, Banda Black Rio, Fela Kuti and Bobby Hebb - but also in its willingness to engage with the wider world, rather than indulge in pettifogging feuds and join-the-dots braggadocio.

Islamic influences abound. Half the album consistently turns to the east in words and in music, and the songs are peppered with haunting muezzin wails, Arab-sounding strings, and swooping samples from Madlib's Beat Konducta in India series. On "Auditorium", the guest star, Slick Rick, raps from the perspective of a US soldier in Iraq, met not with glory or thanks, but by a child saying: "Get the fuck outta my country."

Later, the intensity eases, and laid-back retro beats mingle with xylophones and horns. "Pistola" builds a gorgeous soul groove on the bones of the Intruders' 1968 hit "Cowboys to Girls", while the brief but beautiful "Priority" shimmers with sweet piano and heavenly trumpet and has a message to match: "Peace before everything,/ God before anything,/Love before anything,/Real before everything."

And on it goes, ebbing and flowing: the dusting of dancehall on "Working Comp"; the stoned samba of "No Hay Nada Mas"; the electro-bombast of "Life in Marvelous Times", all overlaid with Mos Def's customary fragmented rhymes and scat singing. With a considerable debt due to the production flair of Preservation, Madlib, Oh No, Mr Flash and the late J Dilla, The Ecstatic unfolds into something dazzling in its stylistic reach yet completely convincing in its sense of unity.

The album peaks with "History", a thrilling two-hander featuring his old Black Star comrade Talib Kweli, which somewhat ruefully acknowledges the decline in Mos Def's musical standards since Black on Both Sides. "Ten years ago we made history," chides Kweli, as Mos Def adds: "Don't call this a comeback in particular." But a comeback it most certainly is, and all the more glorious for being so unexpected.

The Ecstatic fizzes with energy and ideas and is open to the world, both musically and intellectually. To call it a contender for hip-hop album of the year is to damn it with faint praise. It's simply one of the most thrilling, fully realised records of 2009.



James Yorkston
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The jewel in the crown of Fife's Fence Collective delves into British, Irish and Galician traditional music.

Wild Beasts
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Lurid, literate lyrics and Eighties pop from these Cumbrian dandies.

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A delightfully eclectic indie set.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.