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Kendrick Lamar (right) onstage at the BET Hip Hop Awards 2013 in Atlanta with Ali, TDE's engineer and sometimes DJ. (Getty Images for BET)

A Rational Conversation: The Sound Of TDE's Success

by Eric Ducker
Jul 23, 2014

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Eric Ducker

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

One of the biggest and developing stories in hip-hop is the success of Los Angeles label Top Dawg Entertainment. At the center of TDE are the rappers in the Black Hippy crew: Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. Earlier this year ScHoolboy Q released his major label debut Oxymoron, which debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and last month Ab-Soul put out his latest indie release, These Days.... All of this comes on the heels of the phenomenal success of Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city from 2012 and the hunger for his follow-up, promised by the end of this year.

While the Black Hippy MCs are best known for their lyrics because of their hyper-detailed storytelling and confessional approach, they don't ignore the beats side of the equation. And rarely do rappers who only focus on their words reach the level of commercial success that they have. Each of the rappers in Black Hippy has a distinct identity, and that's reflected in the differing sonics on each one's albums, but there is a cohesion to their sound — individually and collectively. A major reason for this is TDE's reliance on a group of in-house producers called Digi+Phonics, comprised of Dave Free, Sounwave, Tae Beast and Willie B. One of their trademarks is the sampling of indie songs like Beach House's "Silver Soul" on Lamar's "Money Trees" and Portishead's "Undenied" on ScHoolboy Q's "Prescription/Oxymoron." These largely behind the scenes figures, who work either in teams or on their own, are responsible for some of the label's best and best-loved songs.

Ducker talked to Brendan Frederick, the Vice President of Content Operations at Complex who is also a music writer and editor, about how TDE's in-house producers break from hip-hop traditions, but also are part of a larger legacy.

One of the aspects of TDE that makes them unique in hip-hop right now has been their development of an in-house and multi-component team of producers. What do you think has been these in-house producers' role in the rise of the label and its artists?

Having Digi+Phonics as an in-house production team definitely gives the label's artists an advantage. They don't really need to be chasing the hot sound of the minute, or relying on an A&R to find them beats. They've got a crew of guys who are on the same wavelength as them, always ready to be creative.

How is that reflected in the actual music they put out?

Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q each have their own personality, but all the TDE releases have a common sound. Not to say that every beat sounds the same, but there's definitely an aesthetic point of view that they all have.

How would you characterize that aesthetic?

Generally speaking, their music has a moody sense of seriousness to it. They're clearly trying to be progressive and do something different from other young rappers, but not so out-there that their music isn't rooted within the confines of traditional rap.

In terms of rap's landscape in 2014, how novel is TDE's in-house producer setup?

Most labels and artists these days rely on an in-house producer or crew of producers for at least the majority of their music. It just doesn't make financial sense — or creative sense, really — to cobble together beats from a laundry list of big name producers like they did on rap albums in the '90s. Everyone needs to be able to work really fast, and everyone wants creative control. The most successful crews have someone in house who creates their core sound. Drake has 40, Cash Money has Detail, YG has DJ Mustard. Making your own beats has also made a big comeback.

I think of those cobbled together albums more of a hallmark of last decade, where labels where praying for a hit and chasing whatever or whoever was popular. The examples you just listed aren't teams though, those are one central person. That was kind of the deal in the '90s with Dr. Dre for Ruthless/Death Row/Aftermath and RZA for Wu-Tang, who then spawned younger satellite producers who made variations (or just copied) the main figure's sound. With TDE, we're talking about a group of individuals, sometimes working separately and sometimes working in tandem, with none of them as the standout architect of "The Top Dawg Sound."

Great point! It is a pretty unique situation. And it's really harder to say there's one clear "sound" that they all represent. If there is a common element amongst all four of the Digi+Phonics guys, I would say it's that they all seem to be really into digging for interesting samples.

Can you give me some examples of samples that they've used that have stood out to you?

So many great samples. It seems like they're either flipping well-known indie pop from the last 10 years, or going for pretty obscure crate-digger stuff like prog rock or jazz fusion. And then occasionally they'll throw in something totally random—I loved the synth sample on Ab-Soul's "Terrorist Threats," which comes from an XBox game. In terms of older stuff, the gorgeous piano line on Ab-Soul's "Double Standards" was taken from a two-second loop of "Islands" by '70s British band King Crimson. But with the exception of flipping Woodkid's "Iron" for Kendrick or remaking Chromatics' "Cherry" for ScHoolboy, they're not going for obvious, recognizable samples, even when the source is modern — they're digging for little gems that they can manipulate into something new. The way they filtered and chopped up Portishead's "Undenied" on ScHoolboy's "Prescription" is pretty creative.

Which is a somewhat outdated thing for a hip-hop producer to be into in 2014 and it's an approach that's going to give you problems when you're trying to place a beat on a major label-released album because of sample clearance issues.

Yeah, crate-digging is definitely a lost art. It's impressive to me that they've managed to make it a central element of their music while still sounding current. It doesn't feel like they're making "retro" rap, despite the fact that it doesn't have much in common with the 808 turnup music that dominates today.

Do you know what kind of input or role some of the Top Dawg executives and label guys have in the development of their sound? I've heard that co-president Punch plays a substantial role.

From what I've heard, it definitely sounds like Punch has always been a big part of the creative process. It seems like he has a lot of input on the big picture. I'm sure these guys are recording tons of songs, so it helps to have someone experienced whose ear they trust help pick the right ones, give feedback, sequence them ... It's similar to what a great A&R would have done back in the day.

How important do you think it is that they have a resident engineer in Mixed by Ali?

It's always tough to tell what comes from the producer vs. the engineer, especially when producers are actually in the studio with the artists like Digi+Phonics are [which isn't common in rap these days]. But clearly having an engineer like Ali who's engaged and who the artists trust is a big asset. The engineer can help get great vocal performances out of the artist. They can sprinkle great details on the track and add interesting processing to the vocals. Take "Swimming Pools," for example — it sounds like a lot of T-Minus beats, but there's a lot of interesting stuff happening, especially with the vocal processing. Ali seems like he's there every step of the way, and having one engineer work on all their projects certainly gives their sound a common thread, especially if you have beats coming from different producers. It's like Instagram: take photos of anything you want, but you add that Lo-Fi filter on it and it all looks great.

Do you think all of this has to do with TDE appearing to have an interest in making albums rather than singles? And I'm not saying that as a way of passing judgment on singles-oriented artists/communities.

TDE seems more interested in dropping cohesive albums and letting them speak for themselves than being on the radio and in the conversation 24/7. Singles seem like more of an afterthought. It's also interesting that they aren't really doing mixtapes anymore. They just stay in the studio until the album is perfected. You don't hear the outtakes or the works in progress like you do with a lot of artists.

Why do you think they've taken this approach? What does it earn them?

My guess would be that they're looking at the long-term play, rather than the short term wins. TDE's record is pretty flawless because they've only released well-thought-out albums and haven't muddied the waters with a bunch of half-baked stuff or trend chasing. They have a reputation for quality, and Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul are set up to be career artists, rather than flash-in-the-pan hitmakers. Their brand has become "real hip-hop," but not in a corny kind of way. They've updated it for a new generation.

Let's talk about the "real hip-hop" stuff, because what that often translates to now from purists is supremely lyrics-focused songs. The beats side of hip-hop has often been the kryptonite to hyper lyrical rappers — the Curse of Canibus you might call it. You could say that the TDE rappers seem to be more focused on lyrics, but the beats don't seem to be afterthoughts. Do you think their beats are on the same as the level as their lyrics?

Their production is overlooked, probably because it's not really on-trend with what's happening everywhere else in rap, and it's hard to really describe in one succinct way. No one would ever say that these guys are amazing rappers but their beats are meh, like you would hear about the Canibuses of the world. These guys are modern songwriters, not just bar-for-bar MCs. They've got personality, they can write hooks, their flows are diverse, they sing sometimes. And their production feels like something they're invested in, not just something for them to spit over.

Have you heard anything in either your own reporting or from contacts about what their beat selection/discovery process entails?

I don't know much, but on Complex we ran an interview where Sounwave was talking about the making of "B—- Don't Kill My Vibe," and he said it started basically by him and Kendrick nerding out over a song they loved by the Danish electro pop group Boom Clap Bachelors. They loved it so much that Sounwave chopped it up and made it into Kendrick's signature song. I like to think that's how a lot of their stuff happens, the rappers and the producers nerding out together over some obscure record that becomes the foundation of a new song. That's the type of thing that can only happen when the artist and producer have a really close relationship.

On Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q's major label debut albums, they did use a lot of TDE producers, but they also brought in outside producers, some of whom are pretty big names, like Pharrell, Just Blaze and Mike Will Made It. How has incorporating those figures into their albums affected the sound and cohesion?

Yeah, it's always interesting when that happens. I feel like it's kind of hit-or-miss. Like, with Pharrell, he did "good kid" for Kendrick, which had a perfect jazzy vibe that fit in with the album, but then he did "Los Awesome" for ScHoolboy, which sticks out like a sore thumb and sounds so obviously like a Neptunes beat that Snoop could have been rapping over it in 2004. I wasn't crazy about Just Blaze's "Compton" for the same reason. But generally, I think they do a good job of getting well-known producers to contribute stuff that sounds unique and fits in with the overall vibe. Mike Will's stuff has been sinister and good for ScHoolboy. T-Minus gave Kendrick a great record with "Swimming Pools" that sounded current but still fit with Kendrick's POV. But my favorite example is "Grooveline Pt. 1," the record that Lex Luger did for ScHoolboy's Habits & Contradictions album. I was expecting "B.M.F." and he gave me a soul loop with no drums.

Do you mean the beats are unique compared to the well-known producers' other stuff? Or are they unique compared to everything else that's out there?

I mean it doesn't sound like a cookie-cutter version of what you would expect to get from the producer. Like the beat Lex Luger did for Schoolboy that I mentioned — it's an R&B loop with no drums, and it doesn't sound anything like you'd expect a Lex Luger beat to sound, which would be big synths and 808s. The beat Mike Will gave Schoolboy on "What They Want" has an ominous, downbeat vibe that sets it apart from most of his production.

What do you make of "Hell of a Night" from Oxymoron? That felt even more pandering and sound-chasing to me than "Los Awesome." It's produced by DJ Dahi, who is more of a journeyman producer, but one who has worked with other TDE artists and isn't really known for that kind of bottle service club rap. He actually produced a song also called "Hell of a Night" for Travis Scott last year, but that sounds like more of a TDE song than this one.

It definitely has some EDM flourishes to it, and the chorus is a pretty boilerplate party hook, but the beat doesn't sound too out of place to me. It's still got a dark, spooky vibe over some 808s, and Dahi is still doing some interesting crate-digging. I'm pretty sure he sampled an 1980s Czech punk band on this (I won't snitch), but it doesn't seem that far from "Man of The Year," which flips a Chromatics song and has a similar party hook. Q was definitely looking for a hit on this album, but most of it is in line with his sound enough that it didn't bother me.

Of the TDE in-house producers, do you have a favorite or one that you are most interested in seeing how he develops? What is it about him that specifically connects with you as a listener?

I definitely think of them as a unit, so it's hard to separate them a lot of times, but looking at their credits, Sounwave definitely stands out to me. He works with Kendrick the most, and he's done a lot of his best songs: "m.A.A.d city," "A.D.H.D." and "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe." He can do an 808 turnup song like "Michael Jordan," and then he'll do something like "Closure," the really sad, downtempo song from Ab-Soul's new album where he sings about his late girlfriend. Sounwave seems like he's up for anything, and the results are always consistently good.

What do you think of the THC production team? They're not officially in house, but definitely closely affiliated. They've done some of my favorite, most far out stuff, like Lamar's "Cartoon & Cereal" and ScHoolboy's "Collard Greens."

Yeah, along with Terrace Martin,THC seem to almost be like honorary members of the team. I'm impressed with what I've heard from THC, although it's hard to pin their style down. "Cartoon & Cereal" is a great example of how a producer can use the ever-popular 808s and stuttering hi-hat framework without sounding formulaic. That might be the hardest beat Kendrick ever had, but then they also did "F—- Your Ethnicity" and "Collard Greens" [with Gwen Bunn] which are much brighter, happier beats. And then ScHoolboy's "Oxy Music" has an industrial, abrasive vibe. They're doing interesting stuff.

How would you describe the differences in production choices on the newest ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul albums? How do these differences connect or boost the personas of each of these rappers?

Ab-Soul's album is definitely moving in more of a spacey, avant-garde direction, whereas ScHoolboy's album generally has more of an accessible hardcore rap feel. Both of these directions reflect the personalities that they've developed on previous releases, but it does seem like they're focusing them a bit more. It was cool to hear Ab-Soul rapping over a beat from Purity Ring on "God's Reign." ScHoolboy made a pretty conventional R&B song with "Studio," and it looks like it might be his first real hit. I don't like either album as much as their previous records, but they're both respectable evolutions.

How would you characterize the beats that are selected for Kendrick Lamar and how they are particularly suited to him?

To be honest, I wasn't a huge Kendrick fan when I first heard Section.80. There were a few great songs, but overall it had a kind of jazzy, neo-soul vibe that turned me off. I was definitely more of a ScHoolboy fan. But Kendrick won me over on good kid, largely because the production is more hard-hitting and fun. It's interesting that good kid has the fewest contributions from the Digi+Phonics crew of any Black Hippy release — only a few Sounwave beats, really. But hearing him over Hit-Boy and T-Minus beats proved he could tackle zeitgeisty sounds without seeming like he was pandering. Stuff like "Real" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" didn't resonate with me as much, probably because they have the same jazzy vibe I didn't like on Section 80. But even if it's not my cup of tea, that vibe is also a part of what makes Kendrick, Kendrick.

Have you heard any talk about the sonic direction that Kendrick is going on his next album?

He's kept a pretty tight lid on it, so I have no idea. Maybe he'll actually get a beat from Dre this time?

Do you think the reason SZA's Z EP didn't seem to really connect has to do with its production direction?

I thought the SZA project was pretty great! I guess it's hard to sell what is basically an indie electro pop album to TDE's core audience of rap geeks. Everyone seemed to characterize her as "TDE's R&B singer," which I thought set up a weird expectation for the album. She's even less of an R&B singer than the Weeknd or Frank Ocean — she has more in common with Little Dragon or Beach House. I was a little surprised that the Pitchfork world didn't embrace it more. It seemed like people wanted to criticize her for not having powerful vocals like an R&B singer, when they would never criticize a chillwave artist for having soft vocals — that's kind of the point. I thought it was a smart move for TDE to sign an artist like her, rather than an accessible R&B artist like Tinashe. It just reinforces their image as a home for progressive, album-focused music.

Do you think that's doubly strange that rap geeks aren't so into SZA considering how many TDE rap songs flip other modern indie electro pop songs?

It is kind of ironic, but I think it's just a testament to the fact that the most TDE fans in the hip-hop world aren't really aware of where the samples are coming from. People who are up on indie rock might know that Kendrick's "Money Trees" flips a Beach House song, but the average rap fan just thinks it's a dope beat. They probably don't even know who Beach House is. And for the most part, even when they are sampling indie pop stuff, they're layering more traditional rap drums over them, so it doesn't sound too out-there. SZA's production doesn't have that layer, it's straight up indie/electro pop.

How crucial do you think it's been that a lot of TDE artists' major singles or trademark songs come from TDE producers? They do a lot of the songs that people actually know and are hyped on.

Yeah, the "in-house" producer does have a reputation for being "the guy who makes the album filler," so it's cool to see them making what are in most cases the most memorable songs. This is super important for the way that an artist's success is perceived. If Kanye West had produced "B—— Don't Kill My Vibe," the narrative would have been, "Kanye gave Kendrick a banger!" But since Sounwave did it, the narrative is "Kendrick made an amazing song." Maybe that will change as the Digi+Phonics guys get more notoriety, but for now, they play a humble position that lets the artist shine more than if they had collaborated with a well-known outside producer.

How are TDE's beats different from the ones used by other contemporary LA hip-hop artists?

Is this a good time to talk about the fact that "Twact" from Ab-Soul's new album sounds exactly like a DJ Mustard beat? Okay, good. HOW WEIRD WAS THAT? But really, if we're talking about contemporary L.A. artists, we're really talking about two things: DJ Mustard's production for YG, and Odd Future's largely in-house production. Mustard's ratchet sound is much more indebted to the g-funk legacy or Bay Area music — it's cleaner, more up-tempo party music. Odd Future's stuff is avant-garde, weirder, nerdier — probably more indebted to Dilla or Madlib. TDE occupies that sweet spot in the middle — accessible but not obviously so, progressive but not obtusely so. But really, I was hoping for a DJ Mustard beat on ScHoolboy's album, he sounded great on YG's "I Just Wanna Party."

How do you think TDE's sound acknowledges or breaks from the traditions of Los Angeles hip-hop?

When people think about L.A. rap, they usually think about g-funk, or hardcore gangsta rap, because of Dre and Snoop and Ice Cube. But TDE doesn't really follow that blueprint, especially from a sonic perspective. Remaking Ice Cube's "A Bird In Hand" beat on "m.A.A.d city" is probably the only time when they've consciously nodded to that scene. But overall, they have a pan-regional, try-anything type of approach like most modern rappers — they're not purposely trying to sound like L.A. rap is supposed to sound, even if there are some common elements that you can trace back. They're just trying to make progressive hip-hop music.

Do you think there's an era or crew from L.A. hip-hop's history that TDE's production seems particularly indebted to?

They have a lot in common with the stuff DJ Muggs was doing in the '90s, or the first two Xzibit albums, or the first Ras Kass album, or the Alkaholiks' stuff. Melodic g-funk got the most attention on a mainstream level, but there was definitely an undercurrent of lyrical, sample-based boom-bap in L.A. throughout the '90s that TDE seems indebted to. Their music is similarly serious and hardcore, and brings back that crate-digging sensibility. Although I'm sure it's not totally conscious, they're definitely following the L.A. tradition, just not the streotypical P-Funk and Zapp sample tradition.

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A burned-out car sits in front of a ruined house in this photo taken Sunday near Pateros, Wash. Large fires have destroyed hundreds of homes in the state this month. (Getty Images)

Obama Declares Emergency As Huge Fires Burn In Washington State

Jul 23, 2014

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Fires are still raging in Washington state, where officials hope rain might help them contain the large fires — but there's also a chance that heavy rainfall could trigger flooding and mudslides.

Fire crews have been battling several major fires in central and eastern Washington for the past two weeks. The blazes have destroyed hundreds of homes and caused wide power outages.

President Obama declared an emergency in the state today, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help local and state agencies with supplies and disaster relief.

From Spokane Public Radio, Steve Jackson reports:

"Several fires continue to ravage the state, with the Carlton Complex, the largest in state history, now at 250,000 acres. But cooler temperatures and increased humidity have helped firefighters achieve 16 percent containment.

"Communications manager for the Department of Natural Resources Janet Piece says rain is actually in the weather prediction for today.

" 'However there is lightning coming with the scattered thunderstorms,' she says. 'So, we're going to have to keep an eye on that, but we're hopeful the rain will keep dousing out what the lightning causes.'

The temperatures are expected to get back into the 90s by next week. Good progress has been made on the Mills Canyon fire, near the town of Leavenworth, and the Watermelon Hill fire burning near Spokane. Both are at 90 percent containment Wednesday."

More than 2,500 people are currently trying to fight the huge Carlton fire, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. The blaze is larger than the Washington portion of the Yacolt Burn, a 1902 fire that killed 65 people and burned more than 1 million acres of land in Washington and Oregon, Northwest Public Radio reports.

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The milk section of a grocery store. (Reuters /Landov)

Episode 555: Why Is The Milk In The Back Of The Store?

Jul 23, 2014

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Milk is often in the very back corner of the grocery store, as far as humanly possible from the entrance. It's a strange location for milk, because it's one the most popular items.

A common explanation for this location is that by forcing customers to walk through the whole store, they will pass more products and end up purchasing more. But is that really why the milk is in the back? Can you really have a business model intentionally built around inconveniencing your customers?

Today on the show, two big theories to answer this little question: Why is the milk in the back of the store? The theories reflect very different world views. To try to discover which is right, we host a friendly debate between food writer Michael Pollan and economist Russ Roberts.

Music: TV On The Radio's "Will Do." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

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People walk by a damaged police station in Mosul on July 15. The militants of the Islamic State are in control of the key city and have acted against former members of Saddam Hussein's regime who helped them drive out the Iraqi army last month. (AP)

Common Ground Between Iraq's Rebels May Be Crumbling

Jul 23, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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The radical Islamic State has ordered shop owners to cover the faces of mannequins in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, shop owners say. The Islamic State has begun enforcing its strict interpretation of Islamic law in the city and other places it controls. There are mounting signs that its relationship with former members of Saddam Hussein's regime is fraying.

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Abu Wissam speaks to us by phone from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. He asks us to use his nickname to protect him, his family and his missing father before he recounts his father's kidnapping.

The men came on evening of July 3, just before Abu Wissam's family was preparing to break their day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

"There were seven of them and before I knew it they were in our kitchen," he says.

Abu Wissam asked them who they were. They said they were from the Islamic State, and then they took his father, a retired general who served in Saddam Hussein's army. Abu Wissam hasn't heard from his father since.

The Islamist radicals that came to Abu Wissam's home still hold the large city of Mosul they took last month along with other parts of Iraq. But they had help, mainly from former members and sympathizers of Saddam Hussein's regime, which was toppled by the U.S. in 2003.

The Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite Muslims, by has been their common enemy of these Sunni Muslims.

But now there are signs that the uneasy alliance between the Baathists of the Saddam Hussein era and the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State is fraying and could fall apart.

Abu Wissam's father isn't the only officer who's been kidnapped. Dozens of others across the city, an apparent command center for the Islamic State, have also gone missing.

The Islamic State controls nearly three provinces of Iraq and pockets of other areas. Some Sunni Arab areas welcomed the fighters as liberators from a Shiite-led government seen as corrupts and sectarian. But some residents in Mosul now say the brutality of the group is beginning to show. Some Sunni towns have even risen up against the fighters with fatal consequences for the residents.

Abu Wissam, the man whose father is missing, thinks the group is trying to neutralize influential former officers before the men become a threat to the Islamic State. Baathists and the Islamic State are using each other, analysts say, for one goal: to take Baghdad and oust the Shiite-led government from power.

But the alliance is inherently unstable because their ideologies are polar opposite. Baathists are nationalists who believe in a strongman state much like the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

They were marginalized following the U.S.-led invasion and formed the original insurgency in Iraq to fight the U.S. presence and now the Iraqi government.

The Islamic State, meanwhile, is focused on taking over parts Iraq, Syria and perhaps other Arab states to re-create a medieval Islamic nation where it can implement its own harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Abu Wissam isn't alone in his fear. We meet Abu Ahmed in the Kurdish city of Erbil. He fled the city last week after his relative, once the head of Saddam's special forces, was kidnapped and Abu Ahmed received indirect threats.

Over cups of tea, late into the night he talks about the situation in Mosul.

"The Islamic State is completely in control," he says.

A few days ago, a new police force appeared in the streets, driving the Ford vehicles previously used by the Iraqi police. But the white cars have been rebranded with two red stripes and a circular black emblem with white letters declaring, "Islamic State, Islamic police."

The Islamic police wear long black shirts over baggy pants, similar to styles in South Asia. They break water pipes that people once enjoyed at cafes, send women home who they deem are dressed inappropriately, whip men who break their fast in the street during daylight.

An Islamic court has been formed as well. And there are the killings. Abu Ahmed and others estimates a few hundred people have been killed in Mosul.

Shiites have been killed on sight. Christians were forced to flee, as were other minorities, and Sunni Arabs who refuse to declare allegiance aren't spared either.

"They could only wear a kind mask for 20 days," Abu Ahmed says referring to the early days when the Islamic State fighters swept through Mosul last month, pulled down concrete blast walls, handing out cooking gas and vowing to protect the city. "Now their true faces are showing."

Abu Ahmed leans over and asks a friend for a cigarette. He jokes: "I can't smoke in Mosul, it's illegal now."

His relative, Saadallah al-Hannoush, was also a senior officer in Saddam's army. He was taken on the same day and in the same way as Abu Wissam's father.

"This was planned. These generals are symbols in Mosul," Abu Ahmed says. "They can make the city rise and they can prepare a comprehensive army in a month."

This, he says, is why they were taken.

"When they took my relative they said it was for consultations, but in reality he is a threat to them," Abu Ahmed says.

Both Abu Ahmed and Abu Wissam believe their relatives are alive, at least for now. Killing them would cause an uproar, they say.

And yet despite the kidnappings, the killings and the merciless interpretation of Islamic law, the city of Mosul still hasn't risen up against the fighters and the tentative alliances are still intact.

This month, Izzat al-Douri, a prominent deputy to Saddam Hussein, and the leader of a Sufi-inspired fighting group, released an audio recording. In it he urged unity for the fight for Baghdad and called fighters of the Islamic State and al-Qaida heroes.

"Our division is the greater enemy," he said in the recording, which appeared on a Baathist website, but couldn't be independently verified. "We have to postpone all differences regardless of their magnitude."

Abu Ahmed echoed al-Douri's words. The alliance continues, he says, because there is a more important goal right now — ousting the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"If they divide and fight each other the Iraqi army will come with a vengeance to kill indiscriminately," he says.

Abu Ahmed says the world needs to stop supporting Maliki, and back the Baathists against the much more brutal Islamic State. It's a choice the world might not like, he says.

But "if you face death or a fever," he says, citing an old Arabic proverb, "you're smart to choose the fever."

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Logan Kovach, 6, Matthew Kovach, 2, and Allyson Kovach, 5, eat a lunch distributed by the YMCA in Hopkins County, Kentucky. (NPR)

Summer Program For Hungry Kids Gets Creative With Food Delivery

Jul 23, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Volunteer Steve Boyd (left) distributes lunches to children from a YMCA truck with the help of YMCA employee Sean Summers (second from right) in Hopkins County, Ky.

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More than 21 million children get free or reduced priced meals during the school year. But in the summer, that number drops to only three million.

The big question is what happens to all the other children. Do they get enough, and the right food, to eat?

This summer, government agencies and non-profit groups are making a massive push to get millions of meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry as part of the nationwide summer nutrition program. And they're doing some creative things to reach them.

Take rural Hopkins County, in western Kentucky. It's mostly farms and coal fields and gently rolling hills. So when school's out, the children are widely dispersed and often isolated.

That makes it a challenge for the local YMCA. It's feeding about 700 children a day this summer, mostly at central sites like camps and parks. But increasingly, it's using mobile units to get food to some of the harder-to-reach areas in the county.

One of the units is a red pick-up truck, with two Y employees in front and several coolers of food in the back. One of its first stops of the day is a Baptist church in the small town of Earlington.

Church volunteer Don Egbert is waiting inside for the lunch delivery — about 20 pork barbeque sandwiches, carrots, strawberries and milk.

No sooner is the food set out on a long table at the church, when two little girls rush in.

Kiarra and Ciara Crook, ages 7 and 8, live right around the corner. Egbert says they come to the church for lunch every day, like clockwork.

"Well, we don't have any food at home, " explains Ciara, adding that her mother works, but only gets paid once a month.

Deanna Brewster arrives next, driving a blue pickup truck, with three neighborhood kids in back. Another two are up front. Brewster says these children automatically get fed when school's in session. But, during the summer, she says, it's difficult for some kids to get even one good meal a day.

If they weren't getting these free meals, says Brewster, the kids she brought would probably be eating a pack of noodles for lunch.

"That's the truth about it," she says. "It's hard these days. "

Ed Wallace, executive director of the Hopkins County Family YMCA, has a map on his wall, where he's circled in black marker what he calls "pockets of poverty" — areas where kids not only lack money, but often transportation to get to other sites or grocery stores. Some also lack parental supervision.

"There are children who their parents are not home," he says. "I know some of the housing sites over the years where the parents have kind of locked them out and then they're just on their own."

And who knows what they're eating, if they're eating at all, he says.

In the summer nutrition program — which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — any child who shows up gets a free lunch. No questions asked. The kids just have to live in an area where more than half the children qualify for free-or reduced price meals at school. That's most of Hopkins County.

Wallace is now using four mobile routes to target some of the hardest to reach areas in the county.

"We stop, feed them, make sure they're eating and then we move on to the next site," he says.

The fourth mobile stop of the day is a subsidized apartment complex in Dawson Springs, a town about a half hour from the YMCA. About a half-dozen children are waiting in line for the red truck. Most of them are holding white plastic grocery bags.

Even though the children are supposed to eat outside at a picnic table where the food is delivered, many take some of it home for siblings, and maybe a parent.

Carrie Kovach watches as her children, ages 2, 5 and 6, unwrap their barbeque sandwiches. She says she and her husband both work, but they still struggle to pay all their bills, so the lunches help.

"'Cause food costs a lot nowadays. And feeding three kids? Yeah," she sighs.

There are similar efforts across the country this summer. Libraries are sending lunches out on bookmobiles. Food banks are delivering meals directly to the homes of needy children who can't get to another site. Cities are serving lunch at public housing projects, where parents are afraid to let their kids out alone.

Educators say when school reopens, they can tell which children ate well over the summer and which did not. Those who didn't are less focused, less ready to learn.

"Imagine if children's hospitals said, 'We're not going to be open in the summer.' If the fire department said, 'We're not going to be open in the summer time,' " says Billy Shore, head of Share Our Strength, a national food advocacy group. "It makes no sense. I mean, this is a critical service. Kids need it. It's got to be provided all year round."

The problem is, right now, the government's summer nutrition program is hit or miss. It relies on a loose network of agencies and volunteers still trying to figure out the best way to reach needy kids when they're not in school.

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