How to Survive When You’re Dead is equal parts recipe for the coldest revenge dish of all time, an unrequited love story and a good old fashioned shootout. Musa Bailey, also known as DJ Mu$a has scored what is, thus far, one of the most influential moments in his life. Years ago after returning to Denver from a long stint abroad, the tastemaker, trailblazer and music genius dove right into his producer role. With a state of the art recording studio and more than enough ideas swirling in his head, what was supposed to be a triumphant return to his hometown almost ended in utmost disaster. Robbed of his livelihood and passion when his beloved studio was ransacked and burglarized, the road to reconstruction (and also redemption) began.
Easily described as a Quentin Tarantino “spaghetti western” film meets “Juice,” Mu$a takes the listener on a journey packed full of colors, sounds and sonic associations. The project’s soundscape is as much a film as an auditory experience. The moments of swelling and stuttered trumpets, villainous shake-ups and painful heart break almost require that you listen with your eyes wide open. The characters, each an archetype thriving within and being hunted by Mu$a are woven into an intricate plot with anachronistic benevolence.
In the introduction to How to Survive When You’re Dead, you can hear, feel and see the searing hate reverberating from known enemies. They came to steal his horses. Beautiful beasts used as a metaphor for Mu$a’s acclaim; his swaggery, his blatant vulnerability that makes his essence so appealing to all within earshot of his music selection.
When the loss is made plain, the crescendo of a mournful trumpet leads us into the meat of the story. While our protagonist laments over his lost riches, the criminals celebrate. They pat each other on the back at having pulled off the heist. They pass around the glory, helmed by a boasting Tupac sample. The music is impeccable and the story well told . Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” is the backdrop for utter despair, the western clip “keep your hand on your gun,” is replayed almost as a regretful mantra; if you stay ready, you won’t have to get ready.
Mu$a feels sorry for himself, unable to pick back up with the thriving passion he felt before the robbery, until he rediscovers his unique penchant for falling in love. Jessica Care Moore is the blisteringly coquettish symbol of love and womanhood. She loves him with a blind discipline. Her vocal entrance smooth like honey and rocky gravel with the phrase, “I’ve always been attracted to dead men.” It’s quite dramatic, really, and she is the only character on display (besides the one Mu$a plays directly) who knows her final fate before it is sealed.
There are reggae breaks, and rap breakdowns. Spanish monologues from vocalist Venus Cruz in perfect pitch that carry the story of love, devotion and distraction like the blind leading the blind. The stuttered trumpets flattened by breaking 808’s, whirled around by Al Green’s crooning melodies are just brilliant (Al Green is the king of unrequited love, by the way). Check for Jeff Campbell who plays a vampire capitalist entity with no sympathy. Hilarious as it is.
Musically, Mu$a shows off the tricks and whips that make him one of the most top notch producers. He employs turntabalism and clipped sampling (so strategically placed, you might miss, but recognize Aaliyah’s moaning, Bob Marley’s wailing, Nate Dogg’s melody), progressive selection and real art imitating life.
I want to tell you the end, because there is surely an end but, you’ll have to listen for yourself. Here’s a hint, no one goes down without a fight. And like the true spirit of rebirth, all things begin anew. For the last act, we are welcomed into the newest phase of DJ Mu$a’s life with the faint sound of a crying baby. His mellifluous cry part answer and part question of just how to survive, when you’re dead.
Ru Johnson is an entertainment writer and brand ambassador living in Denver, Colorado. She writes about hip-hop and is the creative director at Ru Black, a branding firm that consults creative projects and makes things cool. If you’d like to submit your music, send her an email: firstname.lastname@example.org