The most charming cliché graced my Sunday morning and I want to tell you all about it.
I showed up at Ogden Park at 8:30 AM to pick up my bib and aqua-blue t-shirt for the 3rd annual Englewood 5k. I was by myself and spent the 2 hours until race time reading, pretending I’m good at stretching, and watching the whole community turn out for selfies and hugs. It was equally heart warming and alienating for someone who showed up solo.
Come race time, everyone passed under the timing arch, jogging to the beat of the Legends Drumline, which is objectively the greatest running music ever created.
Three jobs and twenty one credit hours have kept me off of UIC Radio’s front page this semester, much to the dismay of my twelve readers (I ❤ you guys & gals). A busy spring also kept Nick V, Cheech, and me from sitting down in the same room together for about two months. When we finally found overlapping free time, we spent the better part of two hours animatedly talking about Syria, Chicago’s water, and the prison system. But between catching up and conversations eventually bleeding into politics, I managed to ask a few questions and listen to some phenomenal answers.
I wanted to interview the FreeFAM founders for a second time. Last fall, they’d impressed me with their business-minded approach to their genre. Without sacrificing individuality and independence, they seek to create a brand to support all kinds of artists. Coming from a city with a music culture that’s very “out-for-yourself,” their message is refreshing. FAM is in the name.
An obligatory catch-up is needed first, as these guys have not sat still since the last time they visited UIC Radio’s studio. They’ve been playing gigs, traveling, and working with producers like CB Mix, credited on Chance’s Coloring Book. They’re working with LRG to create clothing and Pat Banahan of Lost TV to make videos. The group just released a music video for Bless the Bottles, (my personal favorite so far) featuring the same BMW I8 King Louie and Vonmar used in their own video. They even played a show at College of DuPage, which only sounds mildly impressive until you learn COD won’t back anyone without a tax ID and business number. They even have a website. FreeFAM is officially in business.
On Tuesday, I asked Nick V and Cheech about branding. I wanted to know what audience FreeFAM would draw as a full-blown music label complete with t-shirts and dispensaries. Both brothers said “local” immediately. They don’t want to limit themselves to Chicago, but their focus is building up a platform to support all members of music production. Their circle includes engineers and videographers, animators, and even a few family members for legal counsel. The want anyone who’s drawn to an image of family, brothers, positive moves, and a platform that’s there to serve their clients. Cheech commented that “non-threatening artists” are what resonate in Chicago today.
Nick said he wants people with energy. “Energy to party, to help, to create.” He’s got a vision of FreeFAM as a charity and force for good in Chicago. We inevitably broke into ranting about senators and bills, but Nick had a ton to say about water quality. It was endearing and inspiring and had me walking home thinking how one could add water filters to a music label…But that’s beside the point.
I asked about brands that could “make or break” an artist. Lil Wayne and Cash Money were brought up, as was Future, who got in a legal battle with his manager and was forced to release two albums ahead of time so he could start making his own money. Some artists get caught promoting BS; Cheech brought up the Fyre Festival flop. But Jay-Z’s own streaming website was mentioned as a positive. “It all depends on if a brand will encourage or control you,” Nick told me. A label obviously wants a return on investment and will have to control an artist’s image if money is lost. So who’s got their label working for them? Cheech laughed at this thought and brought up Kanye. “His label has been taking so much money from his music. Someone’s been making 50% off all of his songs.”
Controlling the artist is beyond the aims of the Freedom Family. Both brothers explained respect for their artist is the only reason they’d sign someone, and there’s no need to control someone they respect. They don’t intend to cultivate a brand that interferes with music production or limits the evolution and development of an artist.
“At the end of the day, music is the most important. But music won’t be heard without branding.” Other groups have PR people to handle web pages, social media, and scheduling. But for FreeFAM, “It’s just me and Cheech,” Nick says. The work is taking a toll; Nick V’s been off social media and left with what sounds like carpal tunnel in his hands and a prescription for range-of-motion exercises. “Shouldn’t be constantly posting, anyway,” he admitted. I told him not to worry about it. “It’s always nice to hear from family.”
A short one this week, as (let’s be real) we gear up to take on more hours at work next week. That’s how we spring-break UIC style. This means I write about something I’m fascinated by, and don’t need to research, as I usually would. My main game is healthcare, so my odd interest this week is drug policy, e.g. the laws that govern our prescription drugs.
Ready for that nausea to lurch to full-on heaving? Let’s get to it.
-A drug patent in the US lasts ten years. The company of origin has a decade to market the absolute hell out of it before the recipe (ingredients AND quantity) are released. This is how generic drugs exist, usually comprised entirely of the active ingredient of the “designer drug.”
For example, Tylenol’s active ingredient is acetaminophen. You can buy Tylenol for 15$ a bottle, or get much larger bottle of just acetaminophen for about 6$ at Jewel or CVS. Benadryl’s active ingredient is diphenhydramine. It’s a mouthful, but you can just buy a generic “allergy relief” box of pills for $4, with the only ingredient being diphenhydramine–it’ll serve the exact same purpose with the same quality. Read your labels!
-“I did read the labels! And the drug I saw on TV has more ingredients, not just the active ingredient! That makes it better than its generic version!”
This accusation is half-right. Brands put more things in their pills, but these ingredients are usually inactive. It’s essentially to make people believe that their drug is more comprehensive.
-“Then why do branded drugs cost so much more?” Because they can. And because they spend billions of dollars on marketing. The US and New Zealand are the only developed countries that allow direct-to-consumer marketing by pharmaceutical companies. Those wacky ads featuring 60-year-old white couples fishing and going to a ball game? They’re illegal practically everywhere else, because they divert pharmaceutic money away from research and development, and the ads are often misleading. Just think of the super-fast disclaimer at the end.
But back to the “because they can” part. Ahem. IT IS ILLEGAL IN THE US FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO EVEN TRY TO NEGOTIATE DRUG PRICES WITH PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES. Not difficult; not uncommon; illegal. That’s why epi-pen prices were allowed to rocket to hundreds of dollars a year ago. Because the CEOs had no opposition. And big surprise! People with life-threatening allergies need eip-pens to live, so they’ll pay whatever the cost.
-“OH GOD, why can’t we stop this?” Because designer drug brands make lots of money this way. The more money they make, the more powerful their lobby is in DC. I’m sure you’ve heard of “Big Pharma.” They’ve got more lobbyists, more cash, and more power than the National Rifle Association.
It took one meeting with Big Pharma lobbyists to turn Donald Trump’s view from “hey people should be able to afford their drugs” to “more money for Pharma means more innovation and more jobs or something.”
Oh man, here I said that’d be short, and yet here we are. Next time you’re in CVS looking for allergy meds, headache relief, or researching a new birth control pill, look at the ingredients. Then find the generic that boasts the brand-name’s active ingredient on its box. If you’re curious about all the other ingredients, you’ve got a smart phone. Look ’em up! If the generic’s package says “Compare with [Brand Name Drug]” that means it’s identical, except the pills might be a different shade of blue, or come in a bottle rather than a box.
The only difference is marketing. Be an educated consumer. The only way these kind of lobbyists will back off is if we stop feeding them.
“In the write-up, how’d you like me to refer to you?”
“See, that’s a little complicated now.”
Austen Nobles has been making music since we met in 6th grade. He’s been writing and performing as “Nobility” as long as I can remember. He’d release tracks that sound so professional, no one would expect a high school student had anything to do with their production, much less author every aspect himself.
On February 20th, I met the further improved A U S T E N.
Austen finished his degree in Recording Arts at Tribeca Flashpoint College. He produces beats to match his own lyrics, or at the request of other musicians. His own lyrical strength is in verses. He laughs as he admits it’s too bad, because choruses are what make you like songs. He’s always been good at free-styling, but we both felt awkward just calling his music ‘rap.’ So we talked about it. He sighed and spoke honestly: “It’s a joke to say you’re a rapper; you come off like a try-hard.” We moaned about Soundcloud-pushing artists, but Austen admits you don’t need to be signed anymore, if you can build your own fan base. And no, that’s not easy, and yes, I have no shame.
Austen produces for different artists based on reference tracks. He tells me a lot of beats get made and never used. But they always get finished. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll stop working when a track is technically complete. “I was going to release a song for Valentine’s Day,” he said, “but it’s still not good enough.”
I hate asking the question “what are your influences?” because it’s so plain. Thankfully Austen had interesting answers which managed to save this part of the write-up.
The first name mentioned was Childish Gambino. I was giggling and said he and Donald are both quintessential “Black Nerds,” and added if I’d had to guess his favorite influence, that’s who I’d have picked. Austen laughed and explained. “I really just relate to Donald Glover. If you’re a suburban black kid, you probably really like Childish Gambino.”
*Pause for 12 minutes of fawning over Atlanta.
“Childish Gambino expresses insecurity in his songs, and that’s relatable,” Austen continued. He added that we’re bored of the overconfident theme. Austen tries to portray a mix of some confidence and some insecurity in his music. “Where I’m at now, I could make sexy songs but I don’t feel comfortable doing that with my style just yet,” he smiled.
“So no ‘Adult Music’?”
“No ‘Adult Music’ here.”
I pressed him to elaborate on style: “Your music is nostalgic and fun. You have such a range and it’s not every day you find a rap song you just enjoy listening to. How did you manage to do that?” Immediately, Austen gives credit to his upbringing. He had plenty of exposure to indie, folk, metal, 80’s, you name it, and a love for different genres shows in his imaginative tracks. “Taste,” he says, “is the give-away that you’re new to this.” An artist unsure of their style won’t cross genres and their music feels limited. Austen continued, “You’re either a niche artist or you’re an evolution artist. I am—at least—I’m aspiring to be an evolution artist so my music can change.”
I looked down at my paper for the next question.
“How’s your foot?”
Austen leaned his head back and covered his eyes with his hand. He grinned.
The last time I saw Austen perform, he had kicked off the brace holding a stress fracture together so he could dance. “Did it hurt? Yeah. But there’s this thing called adrenaline,” he added simply. I hate to say the risk of him getting hurt was worth it, but that was one hell of a performance. I didn’t know rap could be so engaging to watch live. He obviously cared a lot about how he performed, so I asked him why.
To him, gigs are a lesson. “What worked? What didn’t? Like, I learned which songs the crowd participates with and which ones not perform.”
“How do you tell an artist has experience based on their performance?”
“They’re calm. They already know how to capitalize on moments in a song, but they won’t look rehearsed. Each time performing feels fresh.” Austen earns this by treating each performance like it’s his last, and cited that sage advice was from his dad.
I sure would like to tell you about Austen’s unfinished songs I got to preview, but that’s not for me to disclose. I will say I’m excited and I’m really feeling the perks that come with writing for college radio.
When my questions had been exhausted, we wandered around campus catching up. I made Austen do something I like to call “The BSB Challenge.” We walked into the center of the Behavioral Sciences Building and I asked him to find a random numbered classroom. After 20 minutes in the riot-proof, unfinished, Brutalist cement trap the Flames call home, there was no sign of Room 357 and we were in need of some fresh air. We did make it onto the roof though, and what BSB lacks in aesthetic, it makes up in location.
Humble to the end, Austen stood staring at the skyline and said, “I’m really not one for photos, and I hate to ask, but this view is so good.”
“No worries! And it’s not just good, it’s un-BEAT-able.”
Humanism + Dynamite at the Art Institute is the most shocking exhibit I’ve seen there in ages. Brilliant prints of India ink and original editions of propaganda magazines showing off the decades-long career of Zhitmirsky, a Soviet propaganda artist.
His job was to turn the German soldiers against their leaders in WWII. And then, he was tasked with turning the American people against our capitalist leaders throughout the Cold War.
Hundreds of prints depict controversial leaders, from Goebbels to Truman, akin to apes, fat cats, Hitler, and nuclear missiles. In his work, Zhitmirsky always appeals to the disenfranchised individual, whether it’s a German soldier fed up with his duties, or a poor American, feeling that the economy is unfair. He speaks to “you” in his illustrations, while depicting incredibly intimate and personal situations to strike a certain chord among his viewers.
Zhitmirsky’s most incredible feat is his ability to get you to examine yourself. Sure, Soviet propaganda isn’t a reliable method for basing judgement about the character of a country, but an exhibit like this reminds one to keep a skeptical eye, and that there is power in questioning authority. Doubt is a sign of intelligence, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study for your exams.
Yeah, they were actually called spook tales! Amazing, right?
It all began when spiritualists and photographers developed “spirit photography” in the 1860s, using superimpositon and double exposure to capture ghostly photos.
Early narratives in photography and film came from European folklore and legends, branching into psychological concepts at the turn of the 20th century. Still, these films were silent, so the terror had to be conveyed purely through rudimentary visuals. This is where film-making trickery and fascinating costume and makeup come into play.
Of course, these movies had to overcome certain technological limitations. As old film is incredibly low resolution, scenes couldn’t be shown in the dark. A modern audience would watch and find it odd that so many creepy encounters seem to take place during a brightly-lit day, but that’s just because we’re accustomed to seeing horror movies filmed in pitch-black.
For your horror film party, or for the first night you’re not at work and don’t need to study, here are a few of the revered silent classics that are best enjoyed by candle light with plenty of popcorn. It’s definitely an adjustment watching a silent film, so pull up your favorite fantasy movie soundtrack for the background. I’ll spare the detailed synopses so you’ll get to be surprised and amazed, just like the 1900’s audiences who didn’t get trailers and previews.
1897: La Squelette Joyeux (The Happy Skeleton); The first spooky film with a minute run-time.
1915: The Golem; The first monster movie! Based on a Jewish folktale.
1919: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Enter psychological horror: a look into the mind of a madman!
1922: Nosferatu; a film so close to the original Dracula, the director got in a legal battle with Bram Stoker’s widow over the rights!
I have spent the last few weeks racing back and forth between UIC campus and Chinatown, working as a tutor at this incredible organization called Project: Vision. All this racing has kept me quite busy, so this week’s blog will be a short and un-researched one.
Project: Vision is an after-school, non-profit tutoring center. All the families that register their kids don’t pay any fee, and students are welcome Monday through Saturday until seven PM. Weekend seminars in topics like financial literacy and tax help are even offered for parents and community members.
The only catch is that each student must participate in one of the service projects offered three times a semester. Usually, all our students are excited to sign up and travel with their friends to Chicago’s parks and beaches and help out. The staff look forward to Service Saturdays, too!
P:V’s tutors can help students from 6th to 12th grade with all subjects, including the dreaded AP’s, test prep, and study and reading strategies. We often work with English language learners in conversation hours. Not every student has a quiet place to do homework or peers to ask for help. Many don’t actually have a safe place to spend time after school when mom and dad are still at work. This is where P:V steps in; you don’t have to be struggling with homework to spend an afternoon at the center. Even when CPS closes for the teacher’s strike (as will happen next week on October 11th), P:V will be open for business for students to come and study, read, or play learning games.