NIEMEYER’S TRIPOLI

Inside Tripoli’s International Fairground; an abandoned futuristic vision that survived a 15-year civil war and served as a base of operation through a Syrian occupation.

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razilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—often described as a sculptor of monuments—was terrified of planes. When he came to Lebanon in 1962, he took the boat. At the time, the newly independent country was nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East. Beirut was the region’s financial hub, striving for modernity and international recognition. President Fouad Chehab encouraged the capital’s economic success, but tried to promote national unity and reduce social inequalities by counterbalancing Beirut’s dominance with decentralization.

The first beneficiary was the capital of the North: Tripoli. The ancient coastal city was considered highly strategic due to a number of reasons: it stood in close proximity to the Syrian border, and it had a deep-water port, direct boats to Turkey, and the remains of a railroad line.

Niemeyer was commissioned to create the structures for the International Fairgrounds, stretching over dozens of hectares of land, expected to be the crossroads of all regional commercial activities; a landmark for a modern nation.

Like many major urban development commission, the International Fairgrounds project was loaded with tension. Niemeyer brought his communist aesthetic into the design, favoring an open space that prioritized form over function. The Lebanese, in contrast, wanted a very functional center of business from which they could derive capital revenues.

In 1975, both respective visions for a grand future became casualties of the 15-year civil war that erupted and the nearly completed project was abandoned months before it opened.

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hen she was a child in the 1990s, Mira Minkara would watch her brother play on the dome that sat silently in an empty park. Behind it, a derelict arch, a concert hall and a helipad stood as stalwart artifacts of the futuristic vision that had once united Chehab and Niemeyer well before her time.

Like most of her peers, Mira knew nothing of the history of the dome. The ashes of war were still settling and the northern city of Tripoli was under Syrian occupation. A few yards apart from young boys playing football, the Syrian Army held an administrative block. It’s long been rumored that Lebanese prisoners were tortured and executed under their watch.

Years later, as Mira completed tourism studies with a special focus in the hammams and khans of old Tripoli, the city was racked with political assassinations and car bombs. At war with Israel and facing Islamic uprisings, visitors weren’t lining up for tours—they were lining up at embassies for a one way ticket out. Wrestling with the gravity of the times, Mira became committed to showing the people of the world her city should they ever return. After the ceasefire, she discovered quickly that what caught the attention of most foreigners was not any number of local landmarks, but an abandoned fairground. “For thirty years I walked past this place without paying attention to it,” Mira laughs, “but as more and more people asked about it I got curious.”

I’m sitting beside Mira on the road from Beirut to Tripoli, a willing participant in the local tour, intrigued by Niemeyer’s historical pursuit. A massive metal sign stretches across the highway to greet visitors: “Relax. You are in el-Mina, the city of waves and horizon.” The fairgrounds lie dead ahead.

“You need to experience the architectural promenade. This is what matters here: texture, landscape, harmonies,” explains Mira. The entire project is built around three elements: concrete—the flagship of modernity—water, and wind. The Fair opens on the Exhibition Hall, a curved structure, with a long, wide and flat roof. It was under this roof that participating countries were to install their respective pavilion.

“When Oscar Niemeyer started working in Lebanon it was a cultural shock,” explains Mira as we stand at the vast entrance. “He wanted everything to be opened like in Brasilia but we have a different idea of private and public space.” Open meant no fence, no entrance fee, no ticket booth, perhaps even no windows. The Lebanese insisted on having it their way but Niemeyer had his own plans. The architect’s solution for the ticket booth? “He hid it underground so that it wouldn’t ruin his esplanade,” replies Mira, pointing to a recess in the ground.

From the entrance, the Exhibition Hall seems infinite; no edges, no columns, endless extension into the distance. For the host country, Niemeyer built a separate pavilion. In this building, large open arcades with a view of mountains and sea bring the native architecture into view. Surrounded by a shallow pond, the Lebanese pavilion’s sharp angles become watery reflections as soon as the wind picks up.

Further on, we’re standing in the Experimental Theater; this is the dome of her childhood. “If it weren’t for concrete, this structure could not hold,” she explains. Her voice resonates off the walls, intensifying all senses as we step further into the enveloping darkness. The theater’s acoustics are impressive. A large aperture at the center was intended to hold a mobile stage which would turn, enabling the audience to see the performances from different angles.

Back in the nearly blinding daylight, we climb up a sublime ramp that leads under a gate towards the concert hall, surrounded by reflective pools. Chairs were added in 1996, and the space is now sometimes used for conferences and musical events. (As a teenager, Mira saw the French band Zebda perform here.)

The Master’s Villa, originally built to house the general manager of the fairground, is almost completely covered in vegetation. Nearby are the remains of a white-tiled swimming pool.

“I enjoy the nostalgia of this villa” Mira explains, “I close my eyes and I feel like I’m in Latin America, I try to image what could have happened here. It opens my imagination.”

Walking back to the entrance and through the administrative buildings once occupied by the Syrian army, graffiti covers the charred remains of fire on a wall pockmarked with gunshots. I pause to stare. “Executions,” notes Mira.

Moments later, from the terrace of a bustling restaurant, the fairground appears anachronistic, like a silent phantom on the outskirts of a bustling city. Fatteh is served, a traditional mixture of bread, yogurt, chickpeas and olive oil. I ask about Tripoli’s future.

Some rehabilitation projects have been put forward, including the creation of a theme park—something to rival Disneyland for the Middle East. Another proposal was to create a mega distribution center for Chinese products, but the investors were discouraged by political instability.

“Tripoli is a forgotten city, people are scared to come, even the Lebanese,” says Mira. “I hope I can change this perception because in reality, the city is full of life and has great potential.” She reminds me, in ways, of the men who came before her.

Hello & Goodbye

The sunny spectacle of hello and goodbye
used to rule this place.
Now, the airport gate is empty of emotion;
it’s no longer where an old Jamaican lady
sees her grandkids for the first time
or a couple from Kansas fight off their first parting
with a torrent of French kisses.
Now it’s only ticket holders staring at each other,
waiting for something to happen,
wishing for the days
when the Leavers and the Left Behind
gathered together every hour or so
to make magic.

You think that’s a loss,
but it’s even worse when your plane lands,
when you walk down the jetway and
into the bright white light of another airport gate,
and you are like a baby being born in an empty room.
Your father isn’t there, or your mother, or your friends.
You realize then that no one will ever kiss you
hello at an airport gate again,
or tell you goodbye,
because this is the way the world is now —
you don’t get to see strangers crying or touching
or hugging one another, not anymore,
and you have to walk further
to get to the people you love.

Image: USA. Utah. Salt Lake City airport. 1996. Airports & planes. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Do Ideas Have Sex?

Futurist and modern philosopher Jason Silva reveals his caffeinating thoughts behind metaphysical intercourse and digital cities.

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efore the modern wonder cure—herbal supplements, synthetic Soylent Green and gluten free everything, the rage in 17th century British cities was for an exotic bean drink of Turkish origin that was said to prevent everything from melancholy and indigestion to miscarriage. As it evolved from medicine to mass consumption, spreading from Oxford University student environs to London, coffee gave birth to a new urban culture of spirited debate, news consumption and invention—The Enlightenment Age. Before losing ground, in the late 18th century, to private clubs and other exclusive drinking establishments, the British coffee shop left an undeniable mark on the British city, framing it as a space for invention and discourse.

“The rise of the coffee shop led to radical innovation,” explains Jason Silva, the host and creator of the web series Shots of Awe, “because people were tightly knit in close quarters, drinking lots of caffeine instead of alcohol, and ideas could percolate. So cities, naturally, are extensions of the coffee shop.” Today, says Silva, the utility of the coffee shop has moved online giving us the power to have these spirited stimulant-fueled interactions on an unimaginable scale.

“One of the things the internet has given us is the ability to transcend the usual Euclidian restrictions of time and space.” says Silva, “So with the internet, we find ourselves having serendipitous collisions through hyperlinking.” This uploading of consciousness, Silva believes will lead to a future where the urban agoras—coffee shops, bars, town squares—and by extension big cities, becomes less important and we instead live in high-tech habitation hubs, “little islands,” spatially apart from each other yet intimately linked through the net.

Inventing a kind of social-media shamanism, Silva’s web series combines spiritual doctrine, pop psychology and social criticism given to you in the form of rapid-fire videos. With 316,628 YouTube subscribers and growing, Silva’s appeal comes from his ability to distill vast existential concepts into short bursts of manic energy.

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he handsome 32-year-old Venezuelan-born filmmaker, philosopher and actor also enjoys quite an extensive female fan base. This appeal has helped propel him into gigs at Current TV and the National Geographic Channel—among others—where Silva hosted Brain Games, one of the highest-rated shows to ever appear on Nat Geo at an astounding one million viewers for the first two launch episodes.

But don’t worry, Silva’s vision of an exurban tech utopia—or more likely dystopia—is still far off: “We haven’t fully uploaded our consciousness yet.” says Silva. “We’re still interfacing, it’s just the rudimentary square screen, so I think humans—our mammal body still craves the physical presence of other people. So we haven’t completely graduated from cities yet.”

“What really inspires me lately,” Silva tells Ruins, is the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. In it, Johnson delves into “the ecology of thought” and his assertion that ideas can have sex. As he explains it, in our minds there’s a space for dynamic change, a “vertical integration for general related industries.” It’s this organic collision, and the density that exists in cities that leads to heightened creativity and the birthing of ideas and effects.

As anyone who has ever gone down a digital click-hole knows, there are many winding paths in the internet city. Wandering leaves you open to chance inspiration. While Silva believes these types of digital cities are the wave of the future, we still have a way to go. Singularity is the hypothetical state where artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces have evolved to the point of greater-than-human intelligence.

Silva believes that the seeds to the cities of the future already exist in our current metropolises. “I think a city itself is a physical technology,” explains Silva. “The city is a piece of technology—the city is congealed imagination! The city is…agency! Think of all the signals that are around us at any moment. Everyone who is punching fingers against their phone screens are sending signals that traverse around us and through us at any given moment and a thousand times, a million times a day. I mean, if we could see those wavelengths—if we could see those frequencies, holy moly, that spectrum of activity, that agency and intent that surrounds us at any moment—it’s mind-boggling! That’s the chemistry of life, of oxygen of air—we’re buzzing, everything is connectivity, and we’re living in a hurricane of activity.”

Silva has resurrected Baudelaire’s concept of the flaneur, one who walks the city, and updated it for the digital age. “I get caught up in the digital rabbit holes. On the internet, especially if you’re adept at search combinations, the results just get weirder and weirder. You can really stumble upon some obscure, brilliant thought. All these links and random articles and random things are going into a kind of salad, and later it all comes down into my videos.”

This leads to Silva’s broader philosophical question: How do you filter out the meaningful from the non-meaningful? The street noise from the conversation? “We have to be careful.” he says. “Of course you have to filter the non-meaningful from the meaningful, but if you get too good you might miss out on something that’s unexpectedly relevant. A creative person can’t just dismiss everything. The creative person has to be open to surprises, which means those filters have to be permeable. So you sometimes have to go down that rabbit hole to plant some piece of data in your brain that’s going to connect to something else later. I think that the real world and the internet are becoming similar in that you can go down [digital and intellectual] pathways, and walk down similar pathways in a city. People should let themselves wander around the internet in the same way.”

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Jason Silva. Illustration by Coll Hamilton

VANISHING VENDORS

Inspired by American media, the cornerstones of Hong Kong’s vibrant street food scene are disappearing in the wake of a Westernized food truck trend.

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treet food has become the latest political fault line in Hong Kong, nearly two years after the birth of the Umbrella Revolution, the pro-democracy movement that occupied the city’s streets for 79 days in 2014. On one corner, you may stumble across a vintage food truck selling dry-aged steak and ale pies for the cost of lunch in Los Angeles. On the opposite corner, an itinerant hawker sells a bowl of fish balls for a tenth of the price, at the risk of imprisonment.

In his 2015 budget speech, the city’s financial secretary, John Tsang, announced a plan to legalize food trucks, which so far have been limited to festivals and other private events. Tsang was reportedly inspired by Chef, Jon Favreau’s 2014 movie about a beleaguered restaurant chef who reinvents himself by selling Cuban sandwiches from a food truck. Tsang’s enthusiasm was shared by local restaurateurs whose menus already reflected the food truck ethos of the United States, featuring kimchi burgers and tacos made with Cantonese barbecued pork.

While it may be an innocent enough agenda in most Western cities, Hong Kong’s traditional hawkers see this as the death of their livelihood. “This will just end up helping the chain restaurants or big companies as a marketing ploy,” said one hawker, Chan Kong-Chiu, after Tsang’s speech. “We may never see those licenses.”

Hawkers have reason to be cynical. When the details of the government-funded food truck pilot program were finally released last December, it revealed that the trucks would be restricted to a handful of tourist-friendly locations, and each would benefit from estimated startup costs of HK$600,000 (US$77,000), to cover license fees and detailed design specifications.

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Meanwhile, traditional food vendors have found themselves in the middle of pitched battles between activists and police. A few days before Tsang’s speech in 2015, hawkers selling Chinese New Year snacks in Sham Shui Po were chased away by swarms of government inspectors and police. They found shelter in busy Mongkok, where democracy activists shielded them from police. Thousands of people thronged the food stalls until four o’clock in the morning.

At the start of 2016, things took a turn for the worse. When government inspectors tried to clear an illegal New Year’s market on Portland Street, they were met by a crowd of angry activists. Police arrived in riot gear, prompting an overnight confrontation that has been dubbed the Fishball Revolution. Activists tore up sidewalk bricks and threw them at police—some of whom hurled them back into the crowds. At one point, a police officer fired his service weapon into the air—a shocking turn of events in a city where guns are few and far between. By the time the battle ended 10 hours later, nearly 100 people were injured, including police, journalists and protesters.

Hawking wasn’t always a blood sport. Street food has always been a part of Hong Kong’s culture and economy. In the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the British-controlled city from Communist mainland China, running a food stall was one of the best and only ways to make a living. Wooden pushcarts and green-painted roadside shacks pioneered a new kind of fusion cuisine: curried fish balls, stewed offal, chewy egg waffles, noodle soups and rich milk tea that gave heart to factory workers, longshoremen and manual laborers.

“Back in the day, there was food everywhere,” says Edmond Ma, the second-generation owner of Keung Kee Dai Pai Dong, one of the original 1950s-era street food stalls licensed by the government. “The food culture was so lively. The only issue was hygiene. People left their rubbish on the street.”

By the 1970s, it was enough of a problem that the British colonial administration decided to crack down. In 1973, when there was one hawker for every 80 people, the government stopped issuing new hawking licenses. In the 1980s, it began to buy back those licenses. Today, there are fewer than 7,500 licensed street hawkers, most of which sell dry goods and groceries. Another 3,000 ply their trade without a license.

At the same time, Hong Kong’s shift to a post-industrial economy has led to stagnant wages and economic forces at play, engendering worsening inequality and a job market dominated by finance and real estate. An influx of tourists from mainland China has pushed up retail rents to mind-boggling levels, driving many family-owned restaurants and shops out of business. Meanwhile, food prices have doubled since 2007.

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Ironically, many of the poorest parts of the city—far-flung new towns built in the 1970s and 80s—have the most expensive food, thanks to the dominance of conglomerate-owned chain businesses. In response, illegal street hawkers sell everyday items at a discount, always on the lookout for hawker control officers who tolerate them on some days and arrest them on others. It’s a game of cat and mouse that has in one case proven deadly: in 2006, a 65-year-old Chinese herb vendor named Lo Kong-Ching drowned when he was chased by officers into a river.

Chinese New Year is the only time of the year when unlicensed merchants are given a reprieve. Streets fill with the savory aroma of barbecued meat and charcoal-fired fish ball carts. Many of the vendors are young people earning entry-level salaries that haven’t budged in decades, says Kel Lee, a recent graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “For years, the wages for university grads is the same, about HK$10,000 – HK$12,000 a month [about US$1,300]. Nowadays a cart costs less than HK$10,000, so they can sell fishballs during New Year and earn a lot of money.”

Lee is a member of HK Indigenous, a so-called “localist” group dedicated to livelihood issues that was founded during the pro-democracy protests in 2014. Over the past year, the localist movement has grown unexpectedly powerful, drawing condemnation from Beijing but surprising support at the polls—one localist candidate earned 15 percent in a recent by-election, a remarkable turn for a group that had until recently been dismissed as fringe extremists.

The support reflects a shift in mentality among young Hongkongers, many of whom see Hong Kong, not China, as their home. In 2014, when the Chinese New Year hawkers fled to Mongkok, Hong Kong indigenous activists didn’t just protect them from police, they helped clean up the street to set a good example. “We were patrolling the area, sweeping, cleaning, tidying up the street,” says Lee. “The government tries to say the hawkers are dirty, but we showed they aren’t. The environmental issues can be managed.”

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It’s part of what Lee calls the “Lion Rock spirit,” a reference both to a local mountain peak and a 1970s-era TV show, Below the Lion Rock, that depicted the lives of Hong Kong people lifting themselves out of poverty. “If you work hard, you’ll have the opportunity to move up, and hawker culture is part of that spirit,” he says.

So far, the government hasn’t done anything to dissuade the notion that food trucks will help established interests instead of the poor. Introducing food trucks “is not the same as reissuing hawker licenses,” said Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce, Gregory So. Official policy still calls for the eventual elimination of street hawking.

Meanwhile, Edmond Ma’s Dai Pai Dong has outlasted all of the buildings on his street in Sham Shui Po, which have been torn down one by one for redevelopment. Standing over a vat of steaming fish broth, he says food trucks could be a trojan horse to reform the government’s approach to hawkers. “If people keep it clean, everyone will benefit,” he says.

And if they don’t? He shrugs and glances around at his stall. “We’ll still be around.”

Danielle Levitt

“I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story, and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of other.”

Photographer and director Danielle Levitt’s body of work includes editorials in the world’s top magazines and enviable advertising campaigns for corporate clients. Despite the breadth of her projects, everything she does is filtered through her unique worldview giving her work a powerful cohesiveness. The purest expression of this—no surprise—is found in Levitt’s intimate personal work, which explores the evolving landscape of contemporary American youth culture.

Her images of American youth movements—BMX riders, thrash core punks, beauty queens, high school footballers, Wyoming rodeo riders, teenage werewolves—inspires us to think differently about culture, place and identity. Here, we’ve studied and selected some of our favorites and chatted with Danielle about intention and process.

RUINS: We love the sense of place we get from your work. It’s like your subjects are part of the fabric of their surroundings. What drives you into these less-explored pockets of Americana?
LEVITT: I love passionate people, and I think that young people are less inhibited or refined—they can appropriate culture in a way that feels exploratory and fun. When you see someone who has found a sense of self and a family that is powerful because, on a very basic level, we all know what it’s like to be confused and seeking. So when you see a person or a group of people for whom that has been somewhat alleviated, that is very special. Also trends change, and morph, and go away. It’s important to record these things.

How do you approach your work tonally?
I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of “other.” I offer a platform to people who I think are owning themselves and give them a chance to say how that feels for them and what family looks like, what cool is to them, and what is important.

Do you find the quality of light changes dramatically from one city to the next? How does this affect the images?
Ha, yes it definitely does. My work is about photographing people in their environments so my subjects don’t ever look divorced from the atmosphere. Of course, if I’m photographing goths in southern California, then the sunny warm light is an interesting contrast to what is expected. There’s always an intention to it.

How do you find your subjects in such far flung locales? How has the internet changed the way you work?
I have an amazing team who support me. With the advent of Instagram also, I am able to find these kids that before we’re not as easily accessed. Before I just traveled around, and spoke to everyone. I’m not shy, so if I see someone on the street, I’ll approach them. I also like to remain in contact with young people I’ve worked a lot with so they end up putting me in touch with or onto different young people or trends. Everyone sees people on the street who are different, or hears “crazy” or “inspiring” stories—this is just my job so I go after those leads.

Run Soko Run

The self-professed eternal child Soko arrived on the scene in 2006 with a gritty music video threatening to kill a girl. At this year’s Cannes the singer/songwriter/actress held her own among the international A-List and proved she’s an artistic force ready to claim any stage.

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rench singer, artist and actress Stéphanie Sokolinski, more commonly known to her spirited international fan base as Soko, dropped out of school at 16 to move to Paris and took up acting classes with the famed actress and theater coach Eva Saint-Paul. After her bare bones music video “I’ll Kill Her” (2006) took the internet by storm, Soko set forth on a nomadic spirit journey, releasing two sequential albums that continue to reflect a deepening and complex maturity without sacrificing that signature poetic raw spunk that established her sound: the more intimate and personal I Thought I Was an Alien (2012), and the charging synth-pop My Dreams Dictate My Reality (2015) — both of which she toured on relentlessly. For many artists that would be a fulltime job but Soko thrives on superhuman productivity, and her Caesar Award-nominated acting career, largely rooted in French cinema, has been equally prolific with 13 films under her belt. She was a confident and commanding presence on the red carpet at this year’s Cannes, where she was promoting roles in two French films: Stéphanie Di Giusto’s biopic, The Dancer, where she plays the title role of Loie Fuller, and the Afghanistan war drama The Stopover by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin.

RUINS caught up with Soko to discuss the joys and the sorrows of unencumbered living, Peter Pan syndrome, and the ghost of Harry Houdini.

RUINS: You spend a lot of time on the road – what’s life like when you’re off it?
SOKO: Last year I was making my second record [My Dreams Dictate My Reality]. And that was it, and I didn’t do anything else. I was living in Venice with Ross Robinson, who was producing and had also worked with The Cure. I really wanted an early 80s /late 70s sound–raw and funky and gothy. I like straightforward guitars and fun bass lines. So I lived in Venice with him. He has a beautiful four-story house, beachfront, and a dog named Carl, that I love. We had such a good rhythm. We were supposed to record for two weeks, and I ended up staying for 6 months. We were just working every single fucking day. Which was awesome. We’d wake up, go to yoga, eat lunch together.

How did such a fortuitous collaboration come about?
I started recording in Paris with an engineer, and because I love arranging and I knew exactly what kind of sound I wanted, I thought, fuck it, I’m just gonna produce it. Then I ran out of money and I was like, “Oh, shit. I need someone. So I wrote a letter to Robert Smith to ask him if he would want to produce my record (laughs) and I really wanted it to sound like early Cure. More bare and more punk. I had the letter transmitted through Ross. Robert Smith never answered but then Ross called me and he’s like, “Hey, are you in LA do you want to come meet up? I’ve listened to your stuff, I really dig it.” And I went to meet him and he was like, “Do you want to start recording in 3 days?”

Sounds like the dream.
We have the exact same lifestyle so it worked out very well. He doesn’t smoke or drink or do drugs. He’s vegan and gluten free…and I’m the exactly same.

Are you usually an emotional roller coaster?
I am, but I’m also really hyperactive. If I go into something without releasing any energy, I will not be focused and have crazy ADD. Yoga helps have clear intentions, like “I’m here to make my record, that’s all I want to focus on.” I don’t want to have any distractions. I don’t want to see anyone. I don’t want to go out. I don’t want to drive anywhere. Six months of not seeing anyone. It’s the best.

Do you ever unpack?
For seven years I was living out of my suitcase. I have a crazy Peter Pan syndrome. I’m an eternal child. I have a problem with having too much responsibility. But at the same time, because I’m a musician and have a whole team working for me, so I have to be a boss—even though I don’t [always] want to. Sometimes I get bossy and I’m like, “let’s do this! and this! And that!” And am really efficient. Other times I’m like—“I don’t want to pay bills, I don’t want to find a house. I don’t want to buy a car by myself. I don’t want real life hassles and responsibilities. I just want to go on adventures and have fun.” It was so hard for seven years for me to not have a house and just couch surf, staying with my friends in their guest room, till they were like…”hmm..I think it’s time for you [to go]! What’s next?” But it never really got to that point because I was moving every two months. That’s the maximum I would ever stay with people. I’d also have to go on a flight somewhere.

How does your creative process differ in LA as opposed if you were an artist living in Paris. Would that album have been different?
I don’t feel creative in Paris. I write a lot because I feel like I don’t belong. And the weather makes me a little bit more sad. And then as soon as I’m in LA I’m creative and bubbling over with energy. It’s weird because Paris’s pace is really fast, but it makes me really sluggish. LA is really sluggish, but it makes me want to fight it and do my career non-stop, everyday.

Have you always been crazy workaholic?
I have. No, I definitely have, but I think LA really gets the best of me in that way because its so easy to collaborate with people and everyone is so open. When you have an artistic goal and you want to just bring in whether it’s like, “Oh, I need someone to DP my video, or I need a focus puller.” You post it on Facebook, an hour later, you’ve got your whole team to make a video. Or even like, finding anything, like whatever you can imagine, as soon as I post it on Facebook, literally the next minute it’s sorted in LA because everyone wants to help out. There’s a much better sense of community, like artistic community.

So you find social media rather useful, then.
I am the queen of social media. The power of social media is fucking insane. I use it in a way that feels so fun.

The walls that you come up against in Europe, is that a money thing? Do you find people are less likely to get involved because they think they’re not going to get paid for it?
Yeah, definitely. I find that in LA people are really charitable with their time. People in LA are really just there to make art, and they move there to be artists. And like, nobody has a day job and also rent is cheaper. So you have less money responsibilities.

Comparing yourself now to yourself say like 5 years ago, do you feel you’re a rebooted version of yourself?
I feel like I went through Satan’s return and it was a really fucking hard one and everyday I wanted to give up, but then I put all of my doubts and fears in my music and the whole time I was making this record, I was like, “I want this to be a transformative record”. And to be like lighter and sunnier, you know, feel happier and help me as a human like pass this sort of like sluggish sadness and depression and just be a happier person and live more in the moment and stop projecting myself and like having crazy high expectations and live in the moment.

What was the highlight of your last tour?
We went to an art school in Savannah, SCAD, and everyone was so young and beautiful and creative. We played in a record store called Grayface and all the people there looked like the most awesome, freaky, stylish, cool, out-there people. And hardcore fans. We were trying to save up on hotels, so we would crash with people. When we mentioned, “We don’t have a place to stay! Who can we stay with?” we ended up at Harry Houdini’s old house. It was amazing. Two stories, really big. There were no ghosts, but there was a safe that hadn’t been opened for a hundred years. It was built into the ground, and you couldn’t take it out. My guitar player thought he could crack it and we just literally barely touched it and it opened. Inside there were three gold metal locks for tricks and some screws, but barely anything.

Is it hard to hold down friendships with your lifestyle?
I hang out with a lot of international people. My two best friends are Latinas; one’s from Mexico, one’s from Argentina. Three BFF ladies.

How do you feel about interviews like this?
I think that everything interesting I have to say is in my songs, so doing interviews is always weird. Everything is in my music; all my failures, all my doubts, all my vulnerabilities, all my strength, passion or love. I don’t know how to do anything else, because it’s completely vital for me to do music. Because I need it! When something happens I immediately go home and then it comes– completely formed. Every lyric, every arrangement, every drumbeat. I used to carry diaries all the time, but my bags were always so heavy. My diaries are so big they look like magic books.

So, where people always think that relationships with others are the trigger points or inspiration for songs, I’m getting the impression that more often than people may realize, you draw on your relationship with yourself.
It’s a mix of everything but its funny because I put so much meaning into every single lyric. So every single sentence I pick, I could like take any sentence and tell you 3 stories about them that makes them relevant and so important and exactly why they’re so meaningful. Like even just the title track, “I Come In Peace” was so important to me to put it as an opening track because of my previous record being called, I Thought I Was An Alien.

So it was still an alien reference, but at the same time, really coming to peace with all my demons. Part of that song is reaching for someone who was a drug addict that I was trying to help out. But I had too many expectations and I saw him as this huge hero and I wanted to get engaged and like get married, and have babies and shit. And I was putting so much pressure on someone to be something that he was not.

I’ve been writing for people too, on their new records and stuff. And preparing 4 movies. I can’t procrastinate. If I go one day without creating stuff, I feel like I’m dead. I feel like boredom is death.

Have you always been like that?
Yeah, on my first record I had that one song called “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow” and this is really how I live my life. I really feel like if tonight is my last night and I die in my sleep like my father did, I want today to have been the best fucking day of my life. So everyday I try to see friends that I love and try to work and try to finish things.

Did your father die when you were young?
Yeah when I was 5. It shaped my life. For me there’s no love, there’s just proof of love and to me there’s no, “I’m working.” The only thing that matters to me is results. If you pretend you’re working but there’s no result and there’s no end product, you might as well just be doing nothing. So everyday I try to have something that’s finished.

What do you mean by that, there’s no love, there’s only proof of love?
No, I think when people say, “Oh I love you, I love you, I love you” then when you really need them, they’re not here and they can’t give you proof that they love you, and it’s just words. It’s meaningless.

Is anything off limits?
I don’t know any other way. Doing the opposite would feel wrong and would feel like I’m lying.

But even the holding something back – like you just love the unguarded moment. I mean, you just put it out there.
Yeah, I just don’t know how to build walls. It’s like embracing being vulnerable. If I want to be crying one minute and then laugh the next then you know I’ll fucking own my emotions and there’s nothing wrong about that and you’re not going make me feel bad about it. And I’d rather see people cry and then people feel good than like people be completely guarded and have absolutely no emotion and you never know what’s in their head. These people are like dangerous. [I] don’t know how to approach them.

Soko is already working on her next album.

Zoe Cassavetes + Sebastien Chenut

Zoe Cassavetes + Sebastien Chenut

Talking Walls is an intimate glimpse into the lives of creative couples as they casually document a day in their life and interview each other.

Our inaugural piece explores the creative partnership between Zoe Cassavetes, the award-winning filmmaker, and her French husband Sebastien Chenut, the soundtrack producer, as they discuss their recent collaboration on Cassavetes’ new film, Day Out of Days. The film focuses on the plight of the aging actress in the sunny but unforgiving terrain of Los Angeles, the city which they both call home.

IN CONVERSATION: LISTEN

IN CONVERSATION: TEXT

Sebastien: How did we come up with the idea of working together?

Zoe: We came up with the idea because we actually met for a job, for your band. You needed a music video director and we got set up on a meeting, which funny enough turned into a love connection. I think it’s natural. I think our jobs really go together a lot. I’m sort of the visual to your audio.

Sebastien: It’s true.

Zoe: Besides me and how we work together, what’s your daily process when you do your music?

Sebastien: There’s two different aspects of working with projects because if it’s a commercial where there’s a client issue, they want something special that you have to do as well. Then we have to follow with the same concept that they want for the music.

Zoe: It’s not the same as when you work for a director?

Sebastien: No, because when you work for a director you can bring some ideas and you have your personal opinion because that’s why they call you. They call you because you have some ideas about the music you can do for them, for their footage, for their story. The music could be a new character that they need to have for a scene that varies a lack of tension, a lack of emotions. You’re going to fill that space with that experience that you have with the music.

Zoe: We work at home a lot together. A lot of times part of our work may not look like working a lot, but actually it is. I mean it’s fun work. I edit it and then you watch, and then I listen to your music, then we put the two together. A lot of time when we’re home, we’re watching films, or we’re listening to music, or we’re looking at certain images. I guess now after being together so long and working on so many projects together that we have such a trust that we talk about the direction, and then we can go our separate ways, and come back. I would say a strong portion of the time I totally don’t want to change anything, or fix anything, or maybe just a slight adjustment here or there. I guess people sometimes ask, do we fight when we work together?

Sebastien: Yeah we fight sometimes because we are sure about something that we did and sometimes you need to impose a some stuff, and then at the end of the day, sometime you come back and you were right, or we were wrong, but it’s not very easy all the time of course.

Zoe: And you’re French, so…

Sebastien: And I’m French.

Zoe: So sometimes your idea of having conversation and Americans’ idea of having a conversation is two different tones completely.

Sebastien: Yeah.

Zoe: We just moved to L.A. about a year ago. I grew up here and haven’t lived here for, I don’t know almost 20 years, but now we’re back for the time being. How do you like it? Do you find it’s a better place to work creatively than Paris?

Sebastien: There’s nothing you can do in L.A. Is there?

Zoe: You can go on a hike, play tennis.

Sebastien: Yeah, you can go on a hike or you can just…

Zoe: Get a juice.

Sebastien: Talk about jeans, and drugs, and juice, and SUVs, and vacations you won’t ever take. It’s very interesting for us to work here because it makes us concentrate on what we do. One thing I like are wide spaces, it’s very large. It makes you have a lot of decision before getting into the studio and work. I have a window and I can see a lot of spaces from that window, so it’s very helpful to work in here I have to say.

Zoe: I’m more of a fan of seasons and a New Yorker in my heart, but it’s great to be here, and for other reasons like all the work is here. There’s tons of creative people, and tons of jobs, and everything is moving really fast so it’s great to be in the epicenter of the business that you want to succeed in the most.

Sebastien: Do you feel less original than when you were in Paris?

Zoe: No, I feel more original actually. I don’t know.

Sebastien: It feels like in Paris it’s like you feel that people are doing some movies and stuff. Like in this business where I’m going to the direction of making them and it’s like you feel it’s a job, like they don’t care about the … situation. We’re just doing a job as making some money. We could be working in a garage, or we could be actor/director. We don’t feel the vibe of contributing to try to make something very original, or very …

Zoe: I think there’s a bunch of people in LA that would love to do something original and deep or whatever. Look how hard it is to find money to make things that are creative. I think one of the interesting things about coming back here and making this movie, for me is that I know now what I need to make the movie. I have all the great crew, I’ve got my great composer, I’ve got all these things. You need the funds and if you just … not be afraid to ask. You know, as artists we never want to ask for help because we think that we can do it all ourselves, or it has to be created from the inside, and nobody can understand that. In fact, in collaboration the more you realize and the more you open up to collaboration, the better your piece of art that you’re trying to put out in the world is going to be because you have your eyes, and your ears, and you have mine.

We don’t just work on my movies together, we work on commercials together, I make music videos for you. Sometimes we don’t work at all but sit down, we’re in the car or whatever, and I get to hear your new record. Then we get to talk about it and things that we like. Being a couple that’s creative together, but not necessarily in the same business, but business that complements each other is a really lucky thing.

Sebastien: I guess as a writer you wanted to be … and you working outside in the … do you like to work at home?

Zoe: No, I like to work at home. I’m really a home body anyway so I like to sit at the dining room table, or anywhere there’s a big surface, and spread out, and have my tea, and my water, or my candy, and my lip balm, and all of those things. Then sometimes when I’m writing, I’m acting out the dialogue, and I’m a really terrible actress, as we both know, and you’re a really good actor.

Sebastien: That’s not true.

Zoe: No, you have something that’s really comfortable. I’m just totally Marsha Brady. Sometimes I’m acting out the scenes, and I’d rather be in my own privacy. I wouldn’t mind having an office, but I feel like as the writer it’s probably easier to find a little nook and make it mine. What would be the dream project to work on together?

Sebastien: Something tragical.

Zoe: Tragic?

Sebastien: Something tragic. We would put our style into 100 percent of what we can do, for sure.

Zoe: Maybe you should write the movie and I should write the music.

Sebastien: Anyway, any kind of movies challenge you for the style you are choosing to do. I love doing commercials, as well you know, because they force you to be creative with some recipe that you never use and you never felt comfortable with. At the end of the day, when you come back to your own menu of creation, finally it brings you difficult tricks to transfer into what you like to do. It’s never a bad thing to do something that you’re not used to because, just like … is about your creation, I think it’s kind of cool. Do you feel comfortable when you know you’re going to do a commercial that we’re going to do music for?

Zoe: The difference between making a commercial and making your movie is, well, obviously you have a lot more creative control about what you’re doing if it’s your own thing. I think in general I don’t, probably because I’m married to you now. People think of the music last, all the time. We always talk about there’s no budget for music in a lot of things, or whatever, but actually music is so much like another character in the film. It’s like another element, and it’s an essential element of the film, as much as the sound, as much as the way it looks, and the actors, and the words. Everything is the music unless you specifically don’t want to make a movie with music which, I might one day, who knows?

Sebastien: Are you more confident when you know that we’re going to do the music? Like this, you know that you’re going to have your expression 100 percent secure?

Zoe: Luckily, the stuff that we worked together has worked really well. We don’t want to kill each other too much when we do it, but I think I’m a little nervous, in a good way, every time I start a project, any kind of project. When you’re not, that’s means it’s the kiss of death. I think that having you there, and knowing that we can talk about it, and that you have my best interest, and I have your best interest at heart on top of wanting to do the best work, makes for interesting collaboration.

Stupid Trife Shit

The famously wry author of Go The Fuck to Sleep sketches a semi-autobiographical portrait of 90’s Brooklyn and rap dreams gone up in smoke.

T

he apartment in Fort Greene was like a dynasty in the late stages of decline by the time I moved in.  When 156 Adelphi Street started getting handed down from friend to friend, it was a princely thing, an honor, to live there—and it was a direct line of descent. Guys and girls as cool as the original three—who were all musicians in a funk band that became a different funk band, then became a reggae band, then became a High Life band, then blew up—filled up the vacancies, and for maybe ten years during the lateish eighties to lateish nineties, it wouldn’t have been unusual to walk into the living room and find anybody who’d ever lived there hanging out still.

I inherited Carlos’s spot when he bounced to Williamsburg in the spring of ’97, but then I had to take a trip and couldn’t actually move in until the fall, so I sublet the room to my man Twenty-Twenty, who’d been looking for a chance to leave Boston (like every hip-hop producer living in Boston) and, more specifically, his parents’ basement. This cool-ass girl named Sue, who was most definitely in the direct line of descent and her then-boyfriend were about to occupy the big room, which had also just become vacant, and this off-brand cat named Dakar was in the middle room.

By off-brand, I mean he was nowhere near the line of descent, in terms of this particular circle of artist-musician-writer types, who had mostly attended one of two colleges uptown, some graduating and an almost-equal number dropping out. Dakar worked with Carlos at an after-school center around the way. Carlos taught the kids to paint and stuff; I never really knew what Dakar did, unless he taught them to be thieving lying scumbags, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In terms of my own lineage, I was a half-prince, maybe.  I’d arrived at college just as the dynasty’s founders were leaving, but I’d rhymed with the band a few times and briefly dated a girl who was a definite dynastic queen and a former 156 Adelphi resident herself—although dated is too strong a word.

By the time I got back to town, 156 Adelphi had been reconfigured. Sue and her man had broken away, citing “bad vibes.” A couple hundred bucks they’d left lying atop a dresser had vanished, and they blamed Twenty-Twenty—he was the guy nobody knew, after all, and an oddball to be sure: six-four, bigheaded and long-dreaded, a mumbly cat who stayed in his room making beats and smoking blunt after blunt with our other man from back home, Knowledge Born, who was living with his moms and little brother a few blocks away.

Dakar, meanwhile, had been holding down 156 Adelphi for two years, plus he had a nice smile and he worked with kids. He was Your Friendly Neighborhood Dread, and he knew how to make white people, which Sue was one of, heave invisible sighs of satisfaction when they realized that this burly, ex-college-football-playing dude was just a big ol’ teddy bear.  He dated white women exclusively (that is, the women he dated three at a time were exclusively white), and all his homeys were white too, facts which would later coalesce into supporting evidence against him—as would his tendency to bump the Wyclef Jean album while getting his ass whipped in chess by me or Twenty-Twenty, or even Knowledge Born who couldn’t play for shit.

Sue didn’t confront Twenty-Twenty or anything, she just packed up her stuff and bounced, leaving Twenty-Twenty enveloped in a cloud of suspected sketchiness but also with a vacant room to move into rather than returning to Boston when the summer ended.  So the reigning crew was me, Twenty-Twenty and Dakar, and 156 Adelphi’s illustrious past became a flickering memory.

It was an awkward situation at first, in that Dakar was on some real “Hey fellas, what’s the plan for tonight” instant-Three-Musketeers shit.

Twenty-Twenty and I had known each other since the days of jumping over our own legs at house parties, and we both came up at a time when hip hop was a participation-based, dues-paid-up-front thing. If you didn’t rhyme, breakdance, spin records or write graffiti, you weren’t shit—you were corny, a civilian. That’s what Dakar sounded like to us: a civilian trying to find out where the jam was at. He’d come hang out in Twenty-Twenty’s room when K Born visited and we did our customary freestyle-and-blunt-cipher thing, but he couldn’t flow or deejay so he just kind of took his hits and took up space.

Nevertheless, by October we’d more or less upgraded Dakar to the status of family—partly because it’s hard not to treat somebody that way if they’re already playing the role, and partly because, through a misapplication of the transitive law of mathematics, we’d decided that if you’re cribbed up with a dude, then by definition he’s gotta be fam or else you’re wack for living with a sucker. Also, to be fair, Dakar was a perfectly plausible cat to sit around and smoke and play chess and talk shit and listen to music with. He brought home more food and beer than any of us, and better weed, and he was generous with all of it. Another factor was that Knowledge Born was quickly revealing himself to have become—in the two years we hadn’t seen him much—something of a freeloading wino, although he could still rhyme his ass off. The spectacle of him crashed out on our living room futon, after keeping everybody up until 3 with one of his cokeheaded God-Body-Science slick-talk rants, tended to provide the bulk of the domestic unrest at 156 Adelphi in those days.

In hindsight, Dakar did plenty of things that, to quote your boy Arsenio, should have made us go Hmm.  Or did make us go Hmm, but didn’t form an alarming enough of a pattern for us to really say “Hold up, this bears serious investigation.” He was always conniving one or another of his waifish, none-too-brilliant girls for one thing: screwing Chickenhead A while Chickenhead B thought he was out of town for the weekend. He’d make me and Twenty-Twenty answer the phone and lie for him sometimes, and once or twice even get the door while he hid in his room. So it’s not like Dakar was fuckin’ Airtight Willie with his mack game. I know now, as a grown-ass man, that anybody so gleeful and braggadocious about dogging women will dog anyone, given the chance, but at the time I probably half-admired Dakar’s half-assed pimpology.

kozyndan_converse (1)

A

ll our friends were young and idiotic and a little sleazy back then anyway. Twenty-Twenty, for instance, was so broke he’d buy a Heineken at the bodega, hide it in his jacket, and bring it into a bar so he didn’t have to buy a drink, then approach women with the same moronic line about being Puffy’s cousin over and over until he’d been categorically rejected by every female in the place—unless enough of them complained to the bouncer first, and he was asked to leave. Knowledge Born, in lieu of a job, would resell nickel bags as dimes to the outtatowners with whom his mom attended grad school.  I myself trooped up to my old college radio station at least once a month and stole as many rare slabs of vinyl as I could inconspicuously carry, then sold them to Son, You Ain’t Hip-Hop, the snotty British record spot in the Village. And I had a job.

So everybody did their little dirt or whatever. I guess it’s ironic, then, that Dakar’s squeaky-clean routine was what made us perk up our ears and be like, This dude is
full of shit.  For me, bells started clanging the day he came home from work with a zip drive (they probably go for 13 cents on Ebay now, but in ’97 they were the new computer thing) and was like, “My job let me borrow this. Can you use it?” I said no. Then a few days later it was, “My job said I could keep it. Do you know anybody who might wanna buy a zip drive?”

Maybe everything would have turned out different if I’d looked him in the eye right then and said, “Motherfucker, nobody cares if you boosted a zip drive from your job. Just say ‘Yo, I boosted a zip drive from my job’ and don’t expect me to believe your boss strolled up to you and said ‘Hey, Dakar, why don’t you take this random expensive piece of computer hardware home for a few days, even though your ass doesn’t own a Playstation, much less a computer?’”

Or the time he claimed he’d done this painting we had in the crib. It was of the metal latticework on the fire-escape door, which might sound dumb but it was actually quite a beautiful piece that kind of tied the indoors to the out, if that makes any sense. I knew for a fact that the dynastic queen I mentioned before, the one I’d semi-dated, had painted it when she lived at 156. One day when I ran into her at a party she said she’d like to have it back. I thought it was a shame to let it go, and also that it wouldn’t really make any artistic sense divorced from its inspiration, but I said cool, come over whenever, I’ll put it aside for you. So I went home and took it down, and that’s when Dakar told me he’d painted it.  That there were two versions of the same painting—she did one and so did he, and this was his.

Never mind that nobody had ever seen the dude anywhere near a paintbrush in his life.  He got me. I was like, “Okay, if you say so,” and I left it alone. Because—and this is a good lesson—the way to tell a lie is not to make it simple, like some people say, or outlandish, as others believe. The key is for the lie to appear completely unmotivated.  That will throw 90 percent of the lied-to off the trail.

Shit got heavy around February. By that time, our hip-hop thing had evolved from freestyle ciphers to actual recording sessions, albeit on a crappy-ass eight-track in Twenty-Twenty’s room. But the music was starting to come together, and a local label was offering to press our 12-inch. We’d added a fourth cat, my man Roam the Wanderer from Queens, who was keyed into the dynasty by way of rhyming in a hip-hop offshoot of the original 156 Adelphi funk band.

His living situation was a little tenuous, some murky thing involving a relationship that had ended well before the lease on the apartment he and ol’ girl shared, so Roam just started unrolling his sleeping bag on our living room floor every night. He was one of those camouflage-wearing urban-frontiersman-monk-weedhead-mad-genius motherfuckers, who traversed the city with all kinds of gear and ponchos and Wilkerson wrenches and flare guns crammed into a big Army-surplus rucksack, and he could pass out anywhere—sometimes with a lit blunt in hand or a fork halfway to his mouth. He got up before anybody, however, and used the alone time to clip his toenails on the kitchen floor, or do calisthenics in his drawers. Twenty-Twenty would walk out of his bedroom in the morning, empty tea mug in hand, see that, wrinkle up his nose and turn right back around.

It’s pretty shortsighted to be crapping where you eat when there are four dudes holding down the spot, none of them with any loyalties to you, right? I mean, if you’re Dakar and you’re move-faking on a major level, you’ve either got to truly swear you’re slick or have major psychological issues and not understand the ramifications of your actions. When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical—like telling us the rent was 80 bucks less than it really was.

It started with a phone bill. Dakar called Twenty-Twenty from the Verizon office, where he’d gone to get our service turned back on after we’d been sloppy and forgotten to pay, and told him that we owed another 60 bucks for reinstatement or whatever, and he, Dakar, didn’t have it. Twenty-Twenty reluctantly gave the Verizon guy his credit card number and we got our dialtone back. The next day Roam swung through and told us that when his phone got turned off there hadn’t been no 60-dollar reinstatement fee. Hmm. Twenty-Twenty called Verizon. Sure enough.

We sat on that until the weekend, knowing Dakar was going upstate to see some buddies he worked with at a summer camp or something. The minute he was gone, me, Twenty-Twenty, Knowledge Born and Roam convened a council of war. First we ransacked his room, on what you’d call a fact-finding mission. And boom, some petty you-deserve-an-asswhipping money shit became a beef you could legitimately kill or at least permanently disfigure a dude over.

kozyndan_takadanobaba_on_acid

W

hat we found, aside from a bunch of nasty porno mags (which, oddly, featured nothing but black women) was a nightstand drawer full of the kind of overdue rent notices they slip under your door when you’re seriously fucking up. Month by month we’d been falling deeper into debt, by the amount Dakar was supposed to pay plus 80 bucks. As the ranking member of the apartment, he made it his job to collect our checks to the holding company. He’d been mailing them in, he just hadn’t been writing his own. We owed about 4,000 dollars, and they were threatening to take us to court and throw us out. Why they’d even been this patient was a mystery.

Then we found the lease and it started to make more sense, and less. I have no idea how E.B. Holding Co. managed to botch a simple document so badly, given that they’d been getting checks with people’s correct info on them all along, but damn near every name on the thing was an amalgam, a misspelling, or an outright fiction. They had Dakar as Darnell, and instead of his last name, Troutman, they had him as Fuentes—Carlos’s last name. I was Alan Mursbucci. Twenty-Twenty wasn’t listed at all, but one of the original dynasty dudes, a trumpet player named Joel who’d been gone for probably eight years, was still a lease-holder. His was the only name typed right.

Again, and maybe I’m just saying this to make myself feel better, if Dakar had sat us down, shown us the lease and said, “Fellas, none of us is legally responsible for this rent money. How ‘bout we stop paying and ride it out as long as we can?” me and Twenty-Twenty woulda been like “Bet.” Who knows, maybe Dakar figured consistent two-thirds payments would keep the holding company at bay—or maybe he figured nothing at all. As I stood in his room, sifting through this mess of sheets red-stamped with Past Due and Final Warning and Eviction Pending, I imagined Dakar sneaking to the front door early in the morning and snatching up the notices before any of us saw. Why had he kept them, though?

In the same drawer was Dakar’s phone book. Twenty-Twenty grabbed it. “I’m calling everybody in this nigga’s life,” he said. This might be the time to mention that despite his various and sundry eccentricities, Twenty-Twenty had grown up in a household where chess was important, and his end game was no joke. He saw the board the way they say point guards see the floor, he knew how to cut off the enemy’s retreat routes before commencing his attack. I looked at him then and knew that’s what he was doing. He’d already decided that Dakar was about to be homeless. Twenty-Twenty wanted to make sure he stayed that way.

None of us was ready to put a plan together yet, and confirming the breadth of Dakar’s scumbaggery seemed like a way to build up to it. I called the after-school center, got his boss on the line and told him the zip drive story, and the rent story too just for context’s sake, careful to frame my motivation as concern, not vengeance. By the time I hung up, Dakar’s job was all over but the shouting.

Knowledge Born left a detailed message for the summer camp director Dakar was so chummy with, on some very convincing think-of-the-children shit. Twenty-Twenty hollered at every one of Dakar’s girls we’d met or talked to or heard of, and even gave them each other’s phone numbers in case they wanted to cross-reference the dates and times on which they’d been two-timed. He tried to get one of them to meet him at Frank’s Lounge for a drink, too, but that’s another story. When there were no bridges left to torch, the four of us sat down over a bottle of Ray & Nephews overproof Jamaican rum and 25 dollars worth of cheap, greasy Chinese takeout and got serious.


It was Twenty-Twenty’s idea to run the portable tape recorder when we confronted Dakar, so whatever he said he couldn’t unsay. But it was me and Knowledge Born who sampled the sounds of screams and baseball bats against flesh, and made a song called “The Truth” the following afternoon. I’m listening to it right now, on a Maxell cassette labeled in black marker, and it’s some disturbing shit. Part of me is proud that we turned an ugly thing like kicking a dude’s ass and throwing him out of his house into art, but it’s some pretty ugly art.  Even though I was going through my sound-like-Rock-from-Heltah-Skeltah phase, dropping my voice about 12 octaves, you can hear the emotional rawness there, the attempt to tell a story that hasn’t been processed yet, the bravado layered over something rappers are supposed to pretend doesn’t exist—maybe remorse. The song starts with us trading off, line for line. Knowledge Born sounds like he’s still amped, like he took a quick time-out from the beatdown to step into the studio and drop a verse. I sound exhausted.

You got treated like family
Uncannily, I got suspicious
The truth shall set you free
But if you lyin’ we turn vicious
Extended the benefit of the doubt
and heard you out
your facts don’t correlate
Grab your shit and just be out
Before I have to go upside your head
to change your mindstate
When I find snakes, there’s no mistake
I’ll see you at the wake
I peep every move you make
plus I know the girl you date
She told me everything…
that’s how I know you fake

When Dakar arrived home, the four of us were sitting in the living room, waiting. Twenty-Twenty, as planned, told him, “Sit down, we need to talk to you.” Dakar’s eyes darted to me as he sank onto the futon, but I kept my face flat. Knowledge Born and Roam were on the other couch. All our weapons were beneath our seats: Roam and K Born had bats, I had a hammer, and Twenty-Twenty, standing above Dakar, was leaning on a metal cane someone had left behind.

“I called Verizon,” Twenty-Twenty said, hand on his hip. “There’s no such thing as a reinstatement fee. You owe me sixty bucks.” Dakar looked up at him—probably relieved that was all, and ready to talk his way free of it. The cane hadn’t registered yet.
“It wasn’t a reinstatement fee, dude, it was the money we owed on the bill. Plus they said they had to charge us for basic service in advance because we didn’t pay.” Dakar looked around the room, then raised his voice a little, slapped his palms against his knees and bowed his arms out from his sides. “What, you think I tried to rip you off?” he asked.

It was interesting to see how quick he played the wounded indignation card. I could see why it was so effective with people like Sue, or even Carlos: it forced your hand, made you feel guilty and unsure, yet at the same time there was a note of intimidation in it, like You’d better back off quick because even a righteous man will rise up to defend his honor, and lest you forget I happen to be a large bear-like motherfucker.

We’d agreed to pick Dakar apart point by point, try to get him to cop to the small offenses before we raised the major stuff, but that opening statement killed Twenty-Twenty’s patience. He dipped into his room for a second, Dakar still trying to clarify the phone situation to our satisfaction.
“You can call Verizon right now. Ask them if we—”

Twenty-Twenty reappeared and dropped the stack of overdue notices into Dakar’s lap. “You know what? Fuck the phone bill. Why are we four thousand dollars in debt?”

I gotta give Dakar credit. His face fell, but he picked it right back up and tried to turn the shit around.

“What the fuck were you doing in my room?” he said to Twenty-Twenty, rising off the couch a few inches.

K

nowledge Born sprang to his feet. “These niggas ‘bout to get evicted!” he shouted. “You better tell ‘em something!”

“This has nothing to do with you, K Born,” Dakar said, all paternal like this was family business and if the guests couldn’t keep quiet then he’d have to ask them to step outside so the three of us could discuss matters in private.

“It’s got plenty to do with me,” I said, cold, and Dakar’s head snapped over. I reached under my seat and picked the hammer up. “Why are we four grand in debt, Dakar? Why are you hiding bills?”

The bats came out from under the couch and Dakar stood. “I can explain!” he yelled, finally starting to appreciate his situation. He sputtered for a second, just long enough not to explain, and then Knowledge Born hit him in the shoulder with an aluminum bat left over from some long departed’s softball league of yore. Roam swung next, another body blow, and then Twenty-Twenty doubled Dakar with a cane jab to the stomach. I dropped my hammer. I’d been pretty sure I wasn’t going to use it.

We all backed off, and Roam yelled, “Why are we four grand in debt?” and Dakar, balled up on the couch, said “Fuck you, you don’t even live here!” and got hit again.
We all deserve a lot of credit, in some ways. Four on one, with baseball bats and whatnot, you could easily kill a dude. We kept it civilized. Nobody hit him in the head—except once, sort of, ten minutes in, after countless starts and stops and fruitless tell-us-the-truths. Dakar was punch-drunk and leaning back against a wall while Twenty-Twenty shouted the same questions at him and swung the bat in the air to keep him at bay. For some reason, Dakar walked into the swing and got clipped in the forehead.

When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical, like telling us the rent was eighty bucks less than it really was.

It was scary. His eyes rolled back and he buckled at the knees, but he stayed on his feet. That’s what Dakar gets credit for—being tough as rocks. He took a ton of punishment, and he never really went down, or gave up. But he never admitted anything either, except that he didn’t really paint that painting. I threw it at his feet somewhere in between, during a bit of a lull—right after I flipped the tape over, as a matter of fact, so 45 minutes in—and was like “Who painted this shit?!” He looked up at me, groggy-eyed from being beaten, and muttered the dynasty queen’s name.

Our goal was to get Dakar out of the apartment, to convey the clear message that he was no longer living at 156 Adelphi. It was harder than it should have been. For a while in the beginning he kept trying to break for the door, but we weren’t done with him and he couldn’t get past us. By the time we were ready to throw his ass out, though, Dakar would not be moved. That was when the whole dreadlock justice thing went down.

Roam, Knowledge Born and Twenty-Twenty, all dreads themselves, decided that Dakar had forfeited his right to wear locks, and so Twenty-Twenty went to get a kitchen knife. Dakar went wild when he saw it, lifting up his tattered shirt and yelling, “You gonna fuckin’ cut me, Twenty-Twenty? Huh? Go ahead then, fuckin’ cut me!” Twenty-Twenty, in his goofy nasal voice, answered “Naw, man, I’m not gonna cut you, I’m gonna take your locks”—and that freaked Dakar out more than the thought of being stabbed. We got him on the ground, and the three of them yanked each and every last dread out of Dakar’s dome. I helped hold him down, but a white boy has no place ripping out a dread’s locks, so I took no direct part in that. Dakar was wrenching back and forth, bellowing “Take them! Take them all!”  So that was what finally broke him. When we let him up, he took off running.

You know a man has done some foul shit in his life when you kick his ass and throw him bald and bleeding into the street, and the person he runs to calls you and instead of yelling “What the fuck!”, she just sighs and says, “What did Dakar do now?” That’s what Christine, his ex-girl from up the street, asked me an hour later over the phone. I told her, and then she asked if Dakar had cheated on her while they were together. Hell yes, I said. With that girl Barbara, she wanted to know. Among others, I said. Then Christine threw him out, too.

Dakar came over the next day to get his stuff when I was the only one home. I took a knife out of the dishwasher and slid it up my shirtsleeve before I opened the door. He was twice my size and could have killed me a dozen different ways in a fair fight and I was scared to death. I only let him in because I suspected he was too humbled to attack me—not by the violence, but his own unmasking.

I was right. We smoked a blunt over the chessboard, and he begged me not to call anybody else in his phonebook, especially his mother or the camp people. He’d already lost his job, he said. I promised I wouldn’t. I didn’t tell him the light on the camp guy’s answering machine was already blinking.  He filled a duffel bag with clothes and left.
That was the last time I ever saw Dakar. For as long as I lived in Brooklyn, I kept expecting to run into him, or hear something, or get jumped on my way home and beaten senseless. But he just disappeared. When the story of what had happened at 156 Adelphi got around, all kinds of people stepped up with, “Yeah, I always knew that dude was shady” stories. None of those clowns had said the first thing by way of warning when I was moving in. That’s that hippie shit, I guess.

Knowledge Born moved into Dakar’s room, and Roam took over the futon, and we never wrote another rent check. You’d think a free crib would help cats get ahead—let them stack dough, give them time to do music—but it was the opposite.  Twenty-Twenty quit his job. Knowledge Born became a full-time drinker, and eventually killed our record deal by going to the studio hammered and belligerent one too many times and convincing the label dude that he was more trouble to work with than he was worth. The label dude was Roam’s boy, and when the deal fell through Roam and Knowledge Born came to blows in the middle of the living room. Twenty-Twenty and I broke it up, but the two of them couldn’t really be in the same room after that—not alone together, anyway.

N

o more music got recorded. Cats started having arguments over who’d smoked the roach in the ashtray, who’d eaten the last of the rice, whose turn it was to go to the bodega—petty shit that only broke fools squab over. One night around two in the morning, when Knowledge Born refused to stop running his mouth, Twenty-Twenty walked across the room and just straight knocked him out, big right hand to the jaw. The next day, it was like it hadn’t even happened.

By the time E.B. Holding finally took us to court, we owed a little over ten grand. Twenty-Twenty and I put on ties and went to housing court, already talking about how much a storage unit would run us. We spent all morning listening to folks who owed five, six, seven times what we did plead their cases, and either get put on payment plans or get their two weeks notice. Our case was the last one called before lunch. E.B. Holding hadn’t bothered to show up and the judge dismissed their complaint.

I moved the fuck out of 156 a month later, one week after Twenty-Twenty pawned his eight-track and the possibility of any more music being made had vanished. Most of the furniture was mine, so when I bounced the apartment was reduced to crackhead status, two chairs and a half-broken TV. The phone got disconnected shortly afterward, so if you wanted to visit you just had to show up. Cats were always home, anyway. The doorbell didn’t work, but neither did the deadbolt, so it all evened out. I didn’t go that much, though. Blood was still smeared on the one lampshade I hadn’t taken with me, and I knew Twenty-Twenty kept Dakar’s yanked-off dreadlocks stored in a Dutchmaster cigar box in his room.

K Born and Twenty-Twenty lasted another fourteen months, running the tab past thirty grand before E.B. Holding finally threw them out. Twenty-Twenty lost it when that happened—got drunk, broke back into the apartment, and smashed every window in the place. Somebody called the cops, and he spent the night in The Tombs before migrating back to his parents’ house with nothing to show for his two years in New York but a backpack full of eight-track tapes. And like all things, the dynasty came to an end. Whoever lives at 156 Adelphi now, I don’t know them.