Saturday, July 29, 2006

Travel: Northern Cal & Wine Country

Travelling north of San Francisco - follow Route #101 to Route #1 exit (near Sausilito). Route #1 North provides a road that hugs the coast and occasionally dips inland, providing a beautifully scenic ride alongside the mountain, ocean and woods - reminicent of the Pacific Coast Highway portion of Rt#1 between LA and San Francisco.

You will soon hit Muir Beach off of Rt#1. Muir Beach is a small town with a small postcard-like beach surrounded by craggy cliffs and deep blue water.
The water is too cold to swim so nearly everyone was just relaxing and playing on the beach (we went in July).

There are trails that lead you to the top of the cliffs providing great overlook views of the beach and surrounding coast. The trails can be a little steep - so having ur beach sandals or being barefoot may be a mistake ... my cousin Jess came with me on this trip and she tired after a 1/5 mile trek up the cliff trail and on the way down she started muscle cramping.

Muir Woods is also a popular tourist destination with one of the greatest redwood forests in the world. We stayed at a Best Western in Petaluma. Big shout out to Bert Melendez who resides here - an artist, comic book author and aspiring script writer - runs great summer camps for kids in Northern California and rocks all the Renaissance Fairs in the region. Petaluma is a nice town right off of Rt. 101 which provides an excellent launching point into the roads of wine country.

We decided to hit Sonoma and Napa valley - Jess kept mentioning how much she enjoyed Mondavi wines so we decided to visit their winery. So we travelled on 29 North toward the town of Oakville. This choice was a home run.

We paid a somewhat pricey $25 per head for the Mondavi tour but by the end of the tour we were blessing this bargain. The tour guide was a straight up pimp - with a smooth voice and flow schooled us extensively on the geography, science and business of wine and wine-making.
The tour started with a history and geography lesson inside a small room followed by a walk outside, alongside the vineyards while he explained the nuances of temperature, grape hang time, grape skin width and how they all influence the "flavor tones" of a wine.

The tour went back inside as our guide explained what happens once the grapes are picked and sent inside where they're crushed by baby midgets in a bucket... seriously !! I was shocked too !! ..... ok ..... ok ..... the grapes are de-stemmed and then squeezed by specialized machinery and placed into special barrels. Wineries use primarily wooden barrels to "age" the wine and are important since they adjust the "flavor tones" significantly and add that "nutty wood" flavor that some wines enjoy. The wines are kept in these barrels until they're ready to be bottled up and sent to alcoholics in NJ (like my cousins Jess and Val).

Last but not least, the tour ended with a great wine tasting. We were given a couple glasses of white and a couple of reds while being schooled on aerating wines and how California wines compare to French wines. We were also provided California rolls (salmon) to help reset our palate between tastings.

Wine country was great.... some more pix.

(click on pix for larger shot)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Travel: San Fran - City of Extremes

San Francisco is a gorgeous city. A series of hills help demarcate little niche neighborhoods - great views can be had from numerous locations in the city and of course the Bay.

This city is surrounded by water, mountains, bridges and great sister towns like Sausilito & Napa/Sonoma to the North and all the towns that dot the path to Silicon Valley to the South.

If you're into bars and music - neighborhoods such as Nob Hill and Russian hill serve up an assortment of establishments.
But the biggest suprise so far has been the number of homeless people that permeate the entire downtown area. In the midst of the high-end retail district, the tourist centers, the commercial sector and the 4 & 5-star hotels are legions of homeless people and drug addicts.

Now don't get me wrong - I from argubly the poorest and most crime-ridden town in America and I dont see the brazen crime and overall craziness that plagues all of America's ghettos.... but I have never known a major city to allow such a density of misery and panhandling to permeate it's commercial center. I will have to guess-timate that San Fran has double to triple the density of homeless and panhandling in it's main district - compared to Philly's Center City or Manhattan's mid-town areas.

Back to the positive - the entire Golden Gate Bridge area is excellent - wind surfers whizz around directly under the bridge like mosquitos. The beach is active with joggers, kids, pets and families. Closer to the base of the bridge, many groups were having beer and BBQ - and everybody is having a good time.

The runners and bikers around here are serious. They're in great shape and they dominate the walkways. As in the touristy areas of NYC, you can hear a slew of different languages being spoken.

On the other side of the bridge you can start up some hiking trails (Bay Area Ridge trails) that lead to other beaches such as Rodeo Beach. The sign stated that Rodeo Beach was a 6.1 mile trek.

I wasn't properly prepared so I only hiked about an hour - but be forewarned - it was mostly uphill and hot for that one hour - so you better have your sun-tan lotion, water and food.

Other places I've visited were Fisherman's Wharf which was a treat - overflowing with seafood restaurants and shops. Presidio is anchored by beautiful displays of nature and architecture.

That's all for now -- Wine Country next week -- if I can get my hands on some cash .... hmmmmm ....... will code for food?

(click on pix for larger view)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hip Hop All Time List

I've been listening to alot of Hip Hop lately and it has me thinking about my all-time list. My list is slanted old-school and east coast but I've tried to be somewhat objective. NAS has been climbing steadily on my list the last several years but my #1 has never changed. I start with a 2-way tie for 10th place.

10. Biggie - My boys are gonna get on my shit about the Biggie pick since I wasn't a Biggie fan at first - but I've been listening to ALL of Biggie's tracks for the past 4-5 years and I realized how talented Biggie was and could've been -- if he rapped less about materialistic life and more about hood life I think he could've been one of the top 3. Juicy and Warning are my 2 favorite tracks from Biggie.

10. DMX - I had to include DMX on my list because in my opinion - NOBODY had a 2-album drop that was as SICK as DMX's first 2 albums. DMX's tracks on those albums were epic. Grimy, gritty yet inspirational but always thoroughly hood..... if you don't agree --take some time out and listen to his first 2 albums and then drop a comment. His autobiography E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX is a good read - captures the essence of the internal fires that drives his art (and demons).

9. LL Cool J - The "young-ens" out here today don't understand the impact that LL had on the rap game and hip-hop culture. This guy was a teenager dropping the craziest shit anybody has ever heard during that time with his "My Radio" track. He was one of the first mega-super stars and was rich before the age of 20 -- and everybody knows that LL had the best love rap track ever with "I Need Love" - (even though this cost him a bunch of hardcore rap fans)

8. Run DMC - They rocked and they ruled for a better part of a decade. Run DMC didn't just spawn albums - they propelled an entire industry and the team around these guys was just as amazing (big shout out to Russell). The guys above Run DMC on this list have built their legacies on the shoulders of these pioneers.

7. Snoop Dogg - I feel that Snoop probably has the smoothest delivery that any rapper has ever had - his delivery is always near perfect. I wasn't a big fan of his lyrics but his flow is tremendous and I still think that Deep Cover track was his best work (but his work the last couple of years with Pharrell from the Neptunes has been soooooooooo good).

6. NWA -I'm using this spot to also include the solo careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube & Eazy E. - I would probably have these guys higher if I was a west coast guy...

BUT, while rappers always misuse and abuse the phrase "we're changing the game" -- NWA really did CHANGE THE GAME. They simply wrestled control of the hip-hop game from NYC and ran with it and launched the careers of some of the top guys in "the game" today.

5. Public Enemy - Big shout out to Orlando Segarra from Camden, NJ for putting that damn Public Enemy tape in my car talking about some new rap group that was gonna take over - we all thought he was bugging - until Chuck D's voice demanded and dominated your attention - and you wanted to do nothing but listen. Definitely 1 of 2 guys on this list that Blew My Mind Up.

4. Eric B & Rakim - Need I say anything about Rakim - he has Snoop's effortless delivery but lyrics that impacted your mind and left deep impressions on many people. Rakim arguably had the best combination of delivery and lyrical wizadry of anybody on this list. These guys probably had the best hip-hop album of all time with Paid In Full and probably the hottest one minute verse in hip-hop history with the title track off this album - Paid In Full.... "thinking of a master plan .. aint nothing but sweat inside my hand .. so I dig into my pockets ... all my money is spent ... I dig deeper .. but still coming up with lint... " -- oh shit - gotta stop - getting goosebumps.

3. Tupac - Tupac never really had a great album - but he's probably had the most great single tracks then anybody on the list - such as Me and My Girlfriend, Hail Mary, Dear Mama, Changes, Aint Mad at Cha, Uppercut, Staring Through My Rear View, etc. - but the reason he's so high on my list is that he simply blows my spirit up -- Pac's tracks have the most impact on me emotionally. He's the only rapper on the list that can significantly alter my mood for an entire day. I CANNOT listen to Tupac before going to work.

2. NAS -I used to have NAS at #4 (behind Rakim & Tupac) but NAS keeps dropping such serious poetry throughout the years that he just keeps climbing the list. This man is simply amazing. He went from a young phenom dropping a legendary Hip Hop classic album to a chiseled veteran taking down rap heavyweights. He can drop a diss track as well as anyone - sorry Jigga - but right after that he can drop a street masterpiece and then come back blowing your mind up with some extreme consciousness rap. NAS is a legend and he's been on my regular rotation for the past 6-7 years - I can't get enough of this guy.

1. KRS1 - Boogie Down Productions - Well folks... nobody and I mean nobody could blow your mind up like KRS; he was the king of "consciousness rap" and is the reason why he's #1 on my list. In addition to blowing your mind up he arguably has the heaviest hitting diss track ever in "The Bridge is Over" -- while rappers were trying to diss each other individually -- KRS1 took down entire NY Boroughs and forever put the South Bronx into the mythical Pound-for-Pound ghetto category. I seriously believe that other NYC boroughs suffered serious inferiority complexes after that (for many years) even though they were pumping out star after star. KRS was also notorious for his incredible freestyling skills where he probably has the most knockouts then any other battle MC. KRS forced your mind to expand with his cultural and socially themed lyrics and I've personally witnessed the signficant positive impact his work has had on young ghetto minds during those times (mid-late 80s) -- especially mine.

Honorable Mention : Tribe Called Quest, Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaata, WuTang, Doug E Fresh and anybody else I forgot -- and no -- I did not forget JayZ :). Finally, I would like to dedicate this list to a lady named Ms. CrumbPacker (I think her first name is Karen) from Spokane, Washington. In 1991, she asked me about my music interests and commented that "Rap is just a phase, it's the new Disco... it'll be gone in a year or two".... so I dedicate my All-Time list of this 30 year "phase" to Ms. CrumbPacker from Spokane, Washington.