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No Expectations 026: Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?
Here’s a Taste Profile interview with Chicago artist McKinley Dixon on the heels of his excellent new album out June 2.
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I’ve been working on deadlines pretty much nonstop since the weekend so the newsletter this week is a Taste Profile interview with McKinley Dixon. Originally, the plan was to have Taste Profiles, the interview series where I talk with an artist about their three most formative pop culture and their three most recent favorite things, be a twice-monthly supplementary blog in addition to the weekly newsletter but I realized pretty quickly that that’s a lot of work. I don’t really have time to write two blogs per week a couple of times a month alongside my regular freelancing workload. So, in the interest of my sanity, a semi-monthly Taste Profile will just be a regular edition of No Expectations. Back to normal next week.
Taste Profile: McKinley Dixon
McKinley Dixon is an immensely talented rapper, animator, and musician who’s bounced around Annapolis, Maryland, New York City, and Richmond, Virginia before eventually ending up in Chicago’s Garfield Park. Once affiliated with Richmond’s Spacebomb Records, Dixon has been making adventurous, experimental, and consistently excellent hip-hop for years now. While I loved his 2021 effort For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her his latest full-length Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? feels like a level-up: the culmination of hard work, tons of touring, as well as a careful honing of a vital voice and vision. Named after Toni Morrison’s Beloved novel trilogy, the album feels like its own evocative world. It’s full of personal vignettes, richly textured live instrumentation in the arrangements, and Dixon’s dextrous flow coloring in the lines. It’s officially out tomorrow and I count a few of the songs as all-timers.
Since he moved to Chicago, I’ve gotten to know Dixon a little bit beyond just being mutuals on social media. He’s an all-around great guy: thoughtful and funny with esoteric tastes that he’s ready to defend. Basically, he’s exactly the kind of person who’d be great for a Taste Profile. On Tuesday, I called him up and we chatted about Mos Def, Dua Lipa, and a couple of animes I’d never seen. Read on below for three formative things in his life and three things he’s into now.
Formative Album: Mos Def, The Ecstatic (2009)
What made you pick this album? You usually hear about Black On Both Sides or the first Black Star album as the formative pick for Mos Def.
Black On Both Sides is obviously an incredible album and an incredible debut but The Escatic sort of was this one that came later in his career. It came after The New Danger and Black Magic. At this point in his career, Mos Def was just not fucking with it. He wasn't fucking with the industry. The Ecstatic is this beautiful album because it shows that if you are a poet, a storyteller, a rapper like that, then there is no timeline. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people sort of see rap as this right now thing where you need to stay on top to ever be relevant. Mos Def was jaded but he never lost his touch. In 2009, that album was a great step forward for him. He didn't release another record for a whole decade. I really respect people, especially black people, being able to take time for themselves, and being okay with that. I love this album for showcasing that a great artist can still be great later in their career.
What was going on in your life when you first heard this LP?
In 2009, the market had just crashed. We were just getting over Bush and going into the Obama era. Rap was in an interesting place too around this time. In the 2000s, rap became this really mainstream thing with Kanye West and 50 Cent. I was realizing at this time how rap is not monolithic and Mos Def helped me get there. On The Ecstatic, he worked with Madlib and updated his sound. He had beats that were more electronic than traditional.
One of the things I love about this album is how all over the place it is stylistically. You listen to the first track and it’s almost like a punk song.
Exactly. If you were listening to rap at the time, you were like “fuck, this record!” It was so forward-thinking. If he were to release this record this year, he’d still do well. “Life in Marvelous Times,” “Pistola,” “Twilite Speedball,” and that track with Slick Rick are all so timeless. The album is also so effortless. It’s 14 songs and sometimes he's singing, sometimes he's yelling, sometimes he's rapping, sometimes he just stops in the middle in the fucking raps and says something else surprising. That’s what inspired me most, more so than Black On Both Sides which is one of my favorite albums of all time. With The Ecstatic, Mos Def proved you can make your own timeline. You can take a breather and do movies with the guy who plays Bilbo Baggins. You can come back whenever. You can do what you want.
Formative TV: Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Speaking of genre-fusing works of art. This show does so much. It’s noir, it’s sci-fi, it’s a Western, and it’s an animated psychedelic jazz freakout. I watched this as a kid and it was so cool to see something that felt adult. It doesn’t have to be just Dragonball Z or Pokemon.
Exactly, and it also doesn’t have to just be one race. I think a lot of people associate anime with either white people or asian characters but Cowboy Bebop showcased a really diverse group of characters. This show was one of the first animes Toonami introduced to American audiences in 2001. It was my introduction to the genre. It was this revelation because it showed me what’s possible. It’s also Shinichirō Watanabe’s first show, which is crazy. Do you know the story behind the making of the show?
I watched the series but don’t know the behind-the-scenes.
In 1998, Star Trek: The Next Generation was huge. Animes at this time were made my toy companies like Bandai. This toy company wanted to sell spaceship toys and gave this guy, Watanabe, a contract to make a sci-fi anime. His vision for the show was so uncompromising and the toy company realized they couldn’t really sell toys for a show like this. He made it this self-contained world that only lasted a season. He didn’t want to be stuck with a franchise for the rest of his life. He wrote the first episode and the ending early on and filled in the gaps. I love that, because when a thing is done, it’s done.
I loved that Cowboy Bebop was only one season because it’s its own story. After it’s over, these characters are just done with each other. What stuck with me is that the human condition is love, loss, death, and change. Cowboy Bebop is such an incredible, incredible look into how Watanabe approached his first show but also how stories end and characters move on.
It’s a cool thing to be exposed to at a young age. It really holds up.
Definitely, I have the DVD box set and it's really cool. It's well-made and all the episodes are titled Sessions like it's a jazz album. Yoko Kanno's music is also in there. It even has stamps. It's great to have especially in an age when physical media is taken for granted.
I have to ask: did you see the Netflix remake?
I did. Cowboy Bebop was honestly perfect media. The thing that sucks is that if that Netflix was not Cowboy Bebop it would have done better. When you watch this and watch the original episodes, you know live-action can’t compare to animation.
I agree. It didn’t really work. What you said about Watanabe’s vision is right. When a story is over, it’s over. You don’t need to update the IP for younger audiences. You don’t need to remake everything.
Exactly. It shouldn’t have been called Cowboy Bebop. There’s no way Netflix was going to give it anything more than one season.
Formative Movie: Paprika (2006)
So far, you have two anime picks.
My other pick was going to be Perfect Blue, which is an older anime. Paprika is done by Satoshi Kon, who also did Perfect Blue. Satoshi Kon is incredible because I identify with him as a musician and as an animator. He once did this interview where he said, "I used to do film, but the film camera moved too slow for my eye so then I did animation." That's why Paprika has 200 cuts in the first couple of minutes. He is able to bend the world and reality so easily without really going into another world. Paprika is this character that exists just within dreams and reality but the way that he captured it was just effortless. He makes his characters human. It’s hard to write somebody as a protagonist and not be like, obviously, this is a good guy. Everything is complex in his world. It’s better to approach storytelling with nuance. I hate seeing shows where everything is black and white. In Paprika, everything is complicated. It's just a beautiful movie.
Recent Album: Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia (2021)
I don’t know if this is inspiring to me more than the sense that it inspires me to write catchier songs but this Dua Lipa album is crazy. It’s just nuts how there are so many hits on one album. It blows my mind. The number of songs here that are so well-written is inspiring. I know multiple people write these songs but I give credit where it’s due because not everyone can sing these songs. It just does such a great job of making timeless hits that aren’t anything but that. I make so many complex, dense shit that I have a hard time doing features. I need to simplify what I do. She can just say “Levitating” over and over again and it rules.
I will say that “Don’t Start Now” is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in a long time. That bass line is incredible. You don’t really hear bass this tasty on the radio.
Exactly. The way they put that shaker in the chorus? It’s incredible. Future Nostalgia is probably the best pop album in the last five years. There are too many hits to name.
I do hate the criticism that pop songs written by committee aren’t as impressive as someone writing something on their own. It’s a weird standard to hold artists to and if a pop star doesn’t write their own songs, that doesn’t mean they’re not a great curator, collaborator, and performer.
Pop stars can be open to critique and collaboration too. I argue about this with some musician friends like “What’s that got to with the quality of the songs?” She is making hits! It’s inspiring me to simplify my shit but still make it poignant.
Recent TV: Jujutsu Kaisen (2021)
I’m going to be honest here and admit I’ve never even heard of this.
I’ve been really into it, which is an anime that revolves around curses and magic. It’s just been so consistently imaginative. I’m a big dreamer when it comes to this sort of thing.
The animation is really well done. The way that characters interact with each other is really well done. These characters aren’t perfect. They aren’t the strongest. This show approaches magic and power in really interesting ways. As I work on my own cartoons and animation, I look to this one a lot. It just gets better and better for me.
Recent TV: Craig of the Creek (2018)
I’ve heard great things about this show.
It’s incredible. As someone who grew up around the Chesapeake Bay, this show hits so close to home. Every single moment of it, you just don’t want it to end. It’s a kids’ show that starts off with three kids, there’s magic and their imaginations, but now in its last season, they go really wild with it. They’ll do episodes on the moon. There’s a youthful magic to it. To me, children’s media is how you last forever. That’s how you make something beautiful, wholesome, and unadulterated. Sometimes you don’t need to filter everything through the complexities of the human condition. It’s also beautiful to watch a show be so inclusive and open. There are gay characters. Normalizing that in kids’ shows is so beautiful because we didn’t have that when we were that age. It’s a brilliantly Black-led show with Black writers. I have a great time watching. I think it's inspiring me a lot to be patient with people.
The music on there is fun. I’m a Jeff Rosenstock fan and know he does the music on here.
He does. Jeff does a great job with all of the music on the show. It feels like a DIY kids’ show set in the DMV where I’m from. It’s crazy because it’s such a communal thing. They reference bands on there and put in little Easter eggs. If you got the DIY community to make a wholesome show for kids, it’d probably be something like Craig of the Creek.
What I listened to:
I listened to the Stuck album, the new McKinley Dixon LP, and an album I’m doing a bio for that’s coming out in April 2024. That’s basically it. I checked out basically no new music at all this week. So here’s a playlist I made in 2019.
Stuck, Freak Frequency
In my years writing about Chicago music, few people have been as ubiquitous in this city’s indie rock community as Greg Obis, who fronts the local post-punk band Stuck. In the 2010s, he was in the short-lived but influential local acts Yeesh and Clearance and then became a mastering engineer at Chicago Mastering Service. He charges $100 per track so pretty much every local LP in the past four or five years has had an Obis credit (he tours with Protomartyr as their sound guy). A few years back he co-founded Born Yesterday Records with Kevin Fairbairn of Deeper, which has put out releases by Moontype, Lifeguard, and more. Most importantly, Obis is one of the sweetest, hardest-working people in this city. With their new LP Freak Frequency, Stuck confirms its status as one of Chicago’s best post-punk bands. The album’s excellent and pushes the band to some esoteric places. It’s not a typical moody post-punk LP: there are many fun and playful moments despite the nervy energy and doom scroll-referencing lyrics.
What I watched:
Chicago Sky vs. Dallas Wings at Wintrust Arena
If you live in Chicago, one of the most fun and most wallet-friendly sports events you can go to is a Sky game at Wintrust Arena in the South Loop. You can get great seats, see some incredible players, and not break the bank. I started going pretty regularly in 2021 and I regret not doing it sooner: I watched games whenever I could on TV but never ventured to Wintrust (they also used to play at Allstate Arena until 2018). My younger high school and college-aged cousins who live downstate are both stellar student-athletes and really into the WNBA. We’d always talk hoops during family reunions. After my layoff at VICE, the Sky were in the playoffs and my family knew I was just chilling at home so they started inviting me to playoff games. That year, the Sky had a perfect roster: pure point guard Courtney Vandersloot, sharpshooter Allie Quigley, scoring threat Kahleah Copper, GOAT Candace Parker, along with rim protector Stephanie Dolson, 6th Diamond Deshields, Azurá Stevens, and more. I went to every home playoff game with them and the Sky won the championship that year. I was there when they beat the Phoenix Mercury in five games winning their first franchise chip. It ruled! I got to witness my first championship-winning game in person in any sport and got to spend more time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins.
This year, the Sky have a completely new team with Kahleah Copper being the only remaining starter from the championship season. Most pundits had the Sky having a lackluster season but so far, the new squad has surpassed expectations. On Sunday, I saw Copper alongside Marina Mabrey, Courtney Williams, Dana Evans, and more take down a solid Dallas Wings roster. When I had a full-time job, I was so close to buying season tickets. I’m trying to go to more this year. The WNBA is a great league but it needs to expand for the benefit of its players who get paid very little and often have to play overseas in the offseason. The only way I see that happening is by going to the games, becoming invested in the sport, and supporting your local team on TV and in person.
What I read:
Brandon Johnson is the most progressive leader in Chicago’s history, promising revolutionary approaches to taxation, education, social welfare, and policing. Among other things, he has vowed to “make the ultra-rich pay their fair share,” steer at-risk youths to jobs rather than violence, reduce homelessness, and implement the doctrine of “treatment not trauma” — that is, social workers, rather than police, responding to mental health 911 calls. The former public school teacher is, of course, a product of the Chicago Teachers Union and the city’s tradition of community organizing — a movement that has long sought to hold power accountable but has never held a power seat itself. For the public employee unions, the community activists, the socialist publications such as Jacobin and In These Times, Johnson is the fulfillment of decades of railing against the establishment.
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar
Thursday, June 1: Jess Williamson, Kara Jackson at Judson and Moore. Tickets.
Thursday, June 1: Wunderhorse, Free Range at Schubas. Tickets.
Friday, June 2: The Cosmic Country Showcase hosted by Andrew Sa, featuring Free Range, Paisley Fields, Bethany Thomas, Parker Callahan, and more at Constellation. Tickets.
Saturday, June 3: Stuck, Melkbelly, Spread Joy at Sleeping Village. Tickets.