My purple mermaid
Caressed by Ms. Ross, waiting
For love unreturned.
Late nineties queenhood
All bow down to black Barbie,
Plastic hair be damned.
Gold nails on the wheel, droptop
Cruising to feed Queen Bee.
How many licks to
Get to the centre of your
Four feet eleven
All muscle and sass, sick rhymes
Seep out like honey.
He only listens to Sinatra these days, only thing bumping from his radio. It's city after city after city and all he's got is Sinatra to guide him, Sinatra to protect him, Sinatra to pray to like a lord and saviour, like his grandfather, hands still caked in the concrete that built this life. Sinatra could have been a construction worker. City after city and the women are always waiting. Each show is like a maw and he will be swallowed whole. He wants to be swallowed. He wants to linger in the belly of each city, let the day slough off him, let a new skin emerge, fresh and clean, licked clean by the women waiting outside hands in the air, their nails catching all the light to blind him. He does not take off the sunglasses. He may never take off the sunglasses again.
In the dream, it is always 1977 and he cannot remember anything but warmth, anything but the end of things being the start of things and so he wakes up sweating, sweating all over whoever is in his bed tonight, the pitch of her voice still echoing around him, that falsetto he can call upon like a shepherd's dog. City after city and he is stumbling with pants around his ankles, the chain around his neck leaving a bruise on his chest from the impact each night until his sternum turns inward like a curse. It never really ends, Sinatra tells him. None of this will ever really end.
Hotels are built to trick you, just like casinos, just like grocery stores. Everybody wants to keep you inside longer, keep the clocks hidden, the A/C pumped up, the oxygen high, the money flowing, and so he walks from room to room through his suite, gooseflesh all over the place, a creeping sensation, not doubt, but something older running down his spine between the beads of cold sweat, the sunglasses still affixed to his face, trying to find his hat, his shirt, his shoes. He finds all these things in pieces and drops them down the garbage chute into what he imagines is a great fire, but it is just a hole. There is no flame at the centre of the earth, just a constant churning. A slow dissolution. Everything will be fresh today. Everything new. He should be golfing, he should be with his new god out there on the links. All the radios in here are in pieces. All the wires have been torn loose, distended, dismembered. His phone tells him it is time to leave and he thanks it for its guidance. All things illuminated at once and every door in this place is shaped like someone's heart, all valves and pumps—the unknown, exposed defects of our biology. He knows so much about biology, about the body itself. He just needs to find his keys.
It's hit after hit after hit—that's how you kill a radio. No mercy, no quarter, no hesitation. In the studio, in the fire pits, the salt mines, for days and days because he needs no sleep, only endless iced teas and the thrum of headphones like a siren he can't avoid, can't block out. Hit after hit after hit, his name underlying every ecstatic burst in the clubs even if they don't know he is there, every hand riding up the soft flesh of a thigh, the thumb on a cheek, tracing the edges of a face, the fingers twisted in the hair behind an ear. He finds himself like teeth on a lip, like a knee between thighs, the hand tucked into the waistband of tights, the come-hither motion flicking out in the darkness, he's there and his hands are softer than anyone remembers, than any of these girls remember. Hit after hit because he knows which ones to call baby and which ones will come home and which ones will keep calling him for weeks and weeks after he's left their city, which ones are gonna drive his phone bill up, but he still circles the same flame again and again, his memory might be short or he just might like to get singed, to remind himself he can fail if he really wants to do so—he can do anything, even die if he really wants to do so. You kill a radio with your hands, girl. You blow out the speakers and leave a mess behind, on the sheets, the floor, the counter, the sink, the backseat of your boyfriend's car. You kill a radio with a beat, with that 808, with a chorus, with a club shouting out the lyrics and bucking on the floor like things unchained and wanting. Always wanting. A club, a bedroom, a hallway three floors up in this hotel, this endless hallway and there are so many doors. You kill a radio when you leave them wanting. You kill a radio with your bare hands if you must. And you do not hesitate.
Sometimes there is a hand on his throat. It's his mother's hand, he knows this even with his eyes closed behind the sunglasses, even in the pitch black of this strange city, this place they've brought him to teach them all how to love again, how to move when the sun has disappeared, how to place a hand on the small of a back, how to push a body up against a wall, not slam, push, push until all the pieces fit together, until there are no lines left, just one long erosion into one another. There is a hand on his throat and he wants to let her know he knows what love is now, he's found it after years of chasing, stumbling, flailing through flesh and there is a laugh out there in the dark, hovering above his sweating face. He is always sweating. The laugh is hers and he remembers it and she calls him the love king, but says it like he's a boy wearing a cape, a boy wearing a plastic crown. He's in a Burger King out in suburban Georgia and there is still sunlight out there somewhere. He's in the parking lot and there is a hand on his throat and he is always thirsty and the crown does not quite fit right and everything smells like rot and grease. Everything is on his tongue. This is not quite a dream. This is not what he wanted, what he asked for from this world. This is what he remembers and it’s eroding into everything else, eroding into the sun until all he tastes is ash and syrup. There is a hand on his throat and he still loves her.
He has no spirit animal. Not one that fits, not one that he considers appropriate. Maybe it's your girl; it probably most definitely is your girl if you think about it too much. And she changes every day. She’s never the same. And you can’t call a person an animal for more than one night, in the day they are going to change again, they are going to let you down, disappoint you, leave you. Love might be learning to live with disappointment, but he doesn’t want to say that, he would never say that because he lives in the here and the now and the ever was, a place he’s found, a place James Brown created every night when he came out and hit the stage, burned up the stage, blinded the audience in the first few rows, had people staggering out like they’d just seen the holy ghost, like they’d just been touched, speaking in tongues or catatonic, withdrawn, taken to some higher plane and unable to return to earth on their own.
He wants to take each crowd where James Brown would go, to a holy land past the confines of concrete and watered down drinks and sticky floors and sweat running in rivulets down into the sewers under every goddamn city, even the frozen hells of the north, the damp holes of the south, the burnt out, salted stretches of road and sand they call the west. Sometimes he wakes up and it feels like his mouth is full of sand, his neck weighed down with Jesus, the chain reminding him to pray, but all he wants is James Brown here to show him the way because Sinatra can’t do it all by himself, he can’t submerge a room in the here and the now. Sinatra is the past, is a reminder of what is coming for us all. James Brown is still breathing somewhere, wearing a cape, stomping his feet, blinding his fans and lashing out at anyone who might claim this whole mess is going to end badly one day.
He gets down on his knees and prays in the desert, Jesus on his chain, dead radios around him spewing wires and epithets like poisoned needles into his dry skin, as he kneels and prays and waits for the king of the famous flames to reveal himself in a cloud of smoke and sparks. He knows it is a man’s, man’s world. He knows that this might begin to change soon, but won’t speak that blasphemy aloud when the hardest working ghost in show business finally arrives.
Maybe he is old. Maybe things have changed. Sinatra knows all about this. He has seen the ups and downs a hundred times or more through his milky cataracts. Sinatra will advise him as they travel across these stranded states, these way-stations in the middle of the night, crashing wedding after wedding. There are babies and babies out there, stacked up to the ceiling—that’s what the PR people have told him in the past. A whole generation spawned in the afterhours, in the early Sunday mornings when the sweat is starting to run cold again, when someone has got up in the middle of the night to get two glasses of water, to flush a condom, to stare into the mirror and ask why. There are girls walking home in the cold out there humming his name, men stranded in bedrooms they don’t recognize, all of them trying to piece together where their night went, what the morning brought and whether they can wash out the smell on the sheets, the smell clinging to faces, to skin and beards and purple necks. You don’t forget that perfume, that stench. You gotta ask the new girl to change what she’s wearing. You gotta ask for something new the next time you see her at the door, the next time she walks into the club, the kitchen, your arms.
Maybe he’s not getting old. Maybe he’s just tired. The girls keep coming, the women keep calling and sometimes he might wonder if they are human or something more, something he can’t articulate—beings, souls, for sure, but not tethered to the same things, the same fear and hate roiling in his stomach whenever a dead body crosses his mind, a kid’s fist finally uncoiling in the middle of the street like a snake. They swallow up the pain, the fear, the ether if he wants to call it that. They don’t follow the rules he knows, he just tries to anticipate their movements. It’s not about the words, not about the words you say, it’s about the movement, the vibe of the place, the track, the room you’ve taken over. That’s what these kids don’t understand; they never had to create their own atmosphere, their own sense of place, a home to welcome these women back into at the end of the night. He’s not old. He’s not tired. He’s on a different planet, in a different dimension, looking down on the ones he left behind, watching them stumble, fumble and flail toward the elliptical sky above with the word pussy on their lips and dollar bills in their sweaty, tiny hands, leaving a trail of grease and flat champagne behind them like a warning.
City after city and he's got purple curtains on everything and sometimes he wishes he was Prince, maybe not all the time, Prince ain't no Sinatra, but he knows a thing or to about a life wrapped in satin sheets, a life with tinted windows and maybe a camel on the property. He wants to know where you can get a camel in Atlanta, if women would still want a ride on a camel, but the studio is calling and the women are calling and city after city seems to have his number. There are no more weddings, no more bachelorette parties, no more hands on the windshield. Sometimes he wakes up in the dark, sometimes with his heart in his mouth. He can taste it like change, coins made flesh, he can taste it in each bud on his tongue. His heart is too big for this world; it has quashed all the other organs in his chest, crippled his lungs, punctured his battered liver.
One day he will die, Sinatra croons to him from a radio somewhere, a radio that hasn't melted in the summer heat. One day he will die and things will grow quiet for once. They will put him in a coffin, put him in the earth, just like his concrete grandfather, just like every Nash before him and there will be lines of women waiting by the coffin, lines of children, lines made up of anyone who ever loved him and this will take weeks, take years, until all that's left in that coffin is a pulse, an urgent thrum of love and hate, circling each other like dogs in heat.
A beat and what is left of a verse. A falsetto in the dirt that you can feel trickling up your spine, into your gut, through the dead air of your radio because who the fuck has a radio anymore, all the radios are dead and dying, all the slow jams are strung up and dissected like alien lifeforms, distended and exposed for limp, pale men behind distant screens to prod and examine like specimens. There is something still alive inside those dead speakers though, in those buried melodies out there in the dirt, something insistent, plaintive, older than the earth, telling you that the dream never really ends, love never really ends, hate is always just a breath away. A song can promise you that much. There are stacks of iPods and hard drives down in the basement, stacks of songs down in the cellar, filling the walls, shoved into the vents, packed with tracks and beats and whispers you’re never going to hear, songs that will burn down when they finally try to break into this place, songs that will make women weep in the streets, that will drive men to seething rage, that will give birth to entire nations once the first note hits the air. But no one will get to open that vault, no one will find what’s left after the fire. And there is always going to be a fire. Love is a tire fire that never goes out.
No one dreams of entropy. You always have to leave them wanting more.
Mark Anthony Clennon is one of the most talented musicians I know. The first time I heard him sing, it brought to mind the deep soulful voices of John Legend or Montell Jordan. Combined with epic piano melodies and intense lyrics, Mark has a sound that mixes popular ballads with old school R&B appeal in an original way.
I interviewed Mark about his beautiful, fun and groundbreaking EP, Black Diamond, which is now on SoundCloud.
The major themes for the EP from a songwriting standpoint were just openness and honesty. From a superficial standpoint, the themes are relationships and dating, but beyond that I wanted to be very honest with myself and very vulnerable to the audience.
In popular music there's a lot of disingenuous engagement about emotions because there's a mystique surrounding musicians. Performers always want to convey that they're cool. Or that they're victims or they are the ones getting their hearts broken. It's challenging for writers to talk about, you know, when they cheated on someone. The introspective element of songwriting isn't prevalent in a lot of pop because people aren't as honest as they should be. I love when I hear artists sing about where they have flaws and say things that are vulnerable.
It's a pretty natural cycle and it doesn't take an offense to take me out of it. Some artists say relationships affect their creative flow. For me, when I'm dating, I don't really feel the need to write more or less because it just comes naturally. I go through phases where I'll write a lot of songs, and then I'll take a break and just not write. I'm in a phase right now where I'm not only an artist, but [also] a PR person and my own manager. I'm learning you have to incorporate all those other things into being a musician, so my cycle now is I'll spend a few months writing and recording and performing, and then I'll spend the subsequent months after hustling and networking and being a business man. It's a natural cycle. I've been writing since I was 16 and there's never been a time where I completely stopped. I'd always get an idea for a song and sing it into my phone or write it down.
I grew up in a very musical family. My grandmother was a pianist and a singer. My father was a jazz musician among other things. Writing and creating music came into my mind in my early teens because I had a project for church. We had a youth Sunday where the youth took over church and had to do everything including sing and put on shows. I wrote a song for that and I really enjoyed it and everyone loved the song. That helped me realize I could write songs and that's where songwriting started. Since I was 6 or 7 I've been inspired by music. When I turned 25 a couple years ago, I decided to pursue a musical career and translate the writing I'd done into recordings.
It's funny, I used a dancehall instrumental that I think I got from my brother. It was basically a CD with a dancehall beat and no lyrics. I wrote a song to that. In our church, we were allowed to be semi-secular with the kind of music we played. I remember it saying something like "Jesus is everything”, which is funny because I'm not very religious now.
I don't think I've really changed that much. I think I've always sought out substance in music. I've always liked artists who have something important to say and value musicianship. When I was 13 and 14, I was really into Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill, to me, is the epitome of talent and that album could be considered pop because it was one of the biggest albums of the year and Grammy-winning. But there's a lot of substance there, and she had a message and a point, and was expressing herself as an artist. The truth is every musician is an artist and everything is art but there's definitely some that are more substantial than others. If you look at Lauryn Hill versus…
There's a huge difference. Kesha has her place in the industry and I respect that. But now I look to artists like Lauryn Hill. Right now one of my favourite artists is Woodkid, who is so talented and there's so much behind his music that makes sense. It's not just about being drunk in a club partying. It's real, there's a lot to it.
I've always wanted to straddle between pop/commercial success and singer/songwriting energy. When I envision myself as an artist, I see two different artists. I see one who is all about the music, plays piano and sings from his heart, performing at venues like Massey Hall, very chill. At the same time I see one who is very into electronic music, a dancer and a performer, a hype experience. So when I was approaching this project I thought, both from an artistic standpoint and a strategic standpoint, the pop is what's going to bring in the commercial success because it's a lot easier to market something like this.
While it was a very conservative state, I was very active musically- I was in two bands, I was also performing in church, I was playing music in school. Though it's a conservative state, music is universal. Florida is a very musically-rich state. You go to Miami and ….it's one of the biggest places for reggaetone/EDM/hip hop. Florida was definitely good for me, musically.
I always knew no matter how much acting I did that music was a future goal of mine. 2010 it was a very good year for me- I had two tours, I was in a bunch of shows and commercials. I was living it up as an actor and I felt very proud of my accomplishments. I was on tour on the east coast and all I could think was "The moment I get back to Toronto, I'm gonna record a demo." Then I did get back to Toronto and I think I got cast in another show right away so I just didn't have time. But once everything was done and I had saved up money from the shows and had free time I was like "This is it. Now or never. " There were a lot of frustrations I had about acting and it felt like music would be an escape. I'm a very creative person. With acting there are so many steps because you have to audition, get cast, perform, whereas with music you can just play your piano and just be more artistic. It was a combination of timing and wanting to be more creative and hands-on. I've come a long way since 2010. I've recorded three separate projects between now and then. Looking back, none of those are really me. I'm so proud of this project now because I've put so much into it and it's so representative of me. When I entered the industry 5 years ago I didn't know anything. I didn't have a voice, a style, I was just singing for the sake of singing.
The past two years I've been forced to be very resourceful. I've been forced to become a producer, videographer etc. because I didn't have a record label or anyone to do all of those things. That's the main experience since crossing over, the idea that I can do everything on my own…you need people to help you along the way, but if you really want something, you can make all these things happen. Toronto has a very vibrant music scene. There's a very supportive music community here. One of the things I love about music, that you can't really do with acting, is that any day of the week I can go to an open mic night and I can go to a studio with my friends. There's always an opportunity to perform, which is unique to Toronto.
There's validity in both. If you have a crew of people who have helped you it's important to stick to that. But if you keep working with the same people you get the same results. Because I do my own production it's important for me to be surrounded by a wide range of people to be inspired by.
If I had that luxury it would have to be someone I knew I couldn't meet today. I would probably say Bob Marley because being Jamaican, he's such an iconic figure and he represents so much to my country and my culture. He's larger than life. There are a lot of different reasons we know Bob Marley, but he's a very talented songwriter and artist. He was a very passionate man, for better or for worse, but I think that made him a great artist. I would love to soak some of that up.
They're all good. I worked on them for so long that I can't really listen to them objectively anymore. When I hear the songs, all I hear are things that make me cringe. Maybe my idea of my favourite song is the song I cringe the least to when I hear it. I think the song that's the most representative of something bigger is Something's Wrong with Me, because I started writing that song when I was 14 or 15. I had the concept for it in my head and over the years I just kept revisiting it. I finished it when I was 24, which was a year before I became a musician. So I feel like that song is bigger than the other ones, because I was working on it for over 10 years and it was stuck in my head. It's also one of the songs where I'm the most honest and vulnerable, and it's about a really important situation in my life.
When I first lived in Canada, I lived in Brampton and moved to Etobicoke after. I lived with my friend and his mom, and they moved and offered me this piano. When I was a child dreaming of being an adult, my idea of being grown up was having a nice apartment with a piano.
Back then I thought to myself, all I want in my apartment is a nice piano, a bed and a kitchen table. I didn't want a television or a computer because at the time I naively thought I could survive without internet or television. I've always been very aware of the fact that things like that distract you, and, growing up, I was addicted to television to the point where my mom had to ban me from watching it. I felt like it would be great to have just a piano, and be forced to be creative. But anyways, I like the fact that I have a television now so that when I'm bored I can watch it.
No, because I'm very honest in my relationships and everything I've sung about would likely be something I've talked to them about. I'm not one of those people who keeps to themselves and writes in a diary full of secrets. It's challenging to write about things where I am vulnerable, though. In Empty Bed, for example, I'm writing about someone I was with and things didn't work out. Sometimes I wonder if people will hear a song and think "Wow, Mark's really into me. He's crazy." I'm conscious of that…not that they'll be offended, but look too deeply into it and think "Wow he's psycho" (laughs). But that's not the case at all. Everyone I wrote about is long gone out of my conscience.
He's caught me dancing a few times…I always play it off like it's no big deal though. I'm like, "What".
It was hard because from the beginning my goal was to record it independently. I went out and I bought the best microphone I could get. I bought all this high quality stuff to enhance my voice. I started and it was just impossible. There's such an art to audio engineering that I don't know. You can teach yourself how to be a producer but you can't teach yourself how to be an audio engineer because there's so much to making a voice sound good. The right engineer can make you sound amazing and the wrong one can make you sound horrible; it can make or break a record. That was frustrating for the first couple of weeks or months. Then I started working with Chris and it's been pretty smooth. Chris and I are on the same level musically. Another challenge that arises from this experience is when you produce a record, write all the songs and then give someone your work to tamper with, it's hard to let go. There were times when he'd be like "Let's mix it this way" and I'd want it another way. As any kind of creative person you'll always be extremely critical of your work. My friend Cam is an architect and he's the same way. Chris and I would hammer stuff out for months but it's very challenging to find something I think is perfect. It got to a point where I had to just stop and finalize the project otherwise I'd spend ten more years on it.
In 1997, I was a lost soul. It was nearing nearly 40 years of life and toil in the “monolithically liberal and feminist"* world I was thrust into. I left politics. I was lethargic and unstable, unable to imagine a world outside of the dark, deep hole that consumed me every waking day. Yet, that year, out of the ether, the spectres of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Chic, Sister Sledge, Erik B. and Rakim, and Chic were resurrected by a modern day black Jesus, whose new testament assumed the form of a ghostwritten, sample heavy, platinum rap masterpiece known as Big Willie Style. It exposed the Draconian police apparatus of the liberal democratic regime (``Men In Black``), it gave an encomium for the lone, brave climate change skeptics (`Just The Two Of Us``). Above all, Big Willie Style marked the triumphant return of the politically-conscious black music many had assumed belonged to days past.
From the opening horns of Kardinal Offishall’s 1996 debut single – Naughty Dread – it’s clear that what you’re hearing is like no other Toronto hip hop track that had ever come before. A flawless encapsulation of the city’s street-level groove, the track would stand for fifteen years as the most unique hip hop output to come from the city by the lake until the one-two punch of Drake’s Take Care and The Weeknd’s House of Balloons.
While the world’s urban gaze was firmly affixed on the up-from-the-underground beats of New York’s ‘Golden Age’ (by 1996 having gone full-on mainstream), it’s without a doubt that the sun drenched dancehall rhythms and unabashed Jamaica-come-Canada twang of Kardinall’s hook would’ve sounded something different.
It may have even seemed to onlookers that the city was poised to become a flashpoint of reggae-influenced hip hop, considering the recent smashing success of Snow’s Informer (at the time, the bestselling reggae single ever released in the U.S…mind-boggling, I know). Yet, for anyone familiar with the expansive mosaic of neighbourhoods that dot the GTA, Offishall would sound far from revolutionary, in fact, more like closure: at long last, an artist was able to capture the smoky jerk joints and lively barber shops of Eglinton West, without attempting to regurgitate to popular rap sounds of the day.
Eighteen years later, Naughty Dread still feels like an important case study of how Toronto hip hop can ring true, in the face of tremendous adversity. Forever obsessed with self-image, and often our own harshest critics, the slightest note of inauthenticity is enough to write off a TO-based rap artist forever. Allowing the sounds of the meddling of new people’s and old traditions to creep onto the wax continues to serve today’s TO artists today, far better than attempting to master a single sound.
Whereas New York’s ‘Golden Age’ can be defined by intense genre study conducted with doctoral-like precision (see; Illmatic, The Infamous, Ready to Die), our unique sound is one that embraces the city’s lack of firmly rooted cultural identity. Naughty Dread lays down a strategic blueprint for how Toronto artists can find their voice – applicable still. From Final Fantasy’s symphonic smash pop to The Weeknd’s Ian Curtis-as-Al Green croonery, Toronto will only claim as its own those who truly defy the static nature of any single genre.
Eighteen years on, Naughty Dread is a time tested musical case study of Toronto as the living, breathing mash-up.
Tinashe – 2 On, feat. ScHoolboy Q
Jeremih – Fuck U All The Time feat. Natasha Mosley
Tink – Don’t Tell Nobody feat. Jeremih
Rico Love – They Don’t Know
Beyoncé – Mine feat. Drake
Cassie – Paradise feat. Wiz Khalifa
The-Dream – Too Early feat. Gary Clark Jr.
Al Green – Everything’s Gonna Be Alright