06/25/2014

“Catering to the Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Since 1995″

by Matthew Hawkins

Long story short: Christmas has come 6 months early.

Long story long: as pretty much everyone knows, I am a MASSIVE fan of New York City’s cable access. The glory days are long gone, but there’s still something genuinely mind melting to be found on one of the four channels that runs 24 hours a day in the Big Apple. And my love affair with the Manhattan Neighborhood Network(s) began pretty much 15 years ago, around this very time of the year, that being the summer of ’99. That’s when I began coming to my buddy Joe Simko’s apartment in Chelsea, where we’d overdose on all the audio/visual insanity, produced by mad geniuses and all around crazy people, before the YouTube became their new home.

This was when the medium was at its zenith: Zenbock, Subway Girl, Turn of the Century, Checkerboard Kids, Mad Dog & Brody, Grube Tube, Wild Record Collection, The Weather Report, and The Mark Birnbaum Show, to name a few. As the years passed, Joe lost interest, but not me. Wasn’t always easy to get ahold of, due to constantly moving back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus a few years in New Jersey, but I was able to stay tuned somewhat. And once I found myself in Washington Heights, where I’m still at today (that’s the northern tip of Manhattan, FYI), and also figured a way to make a living by writing, my obsession with MNN was back in full effect. Despite the fact that it was now cable access in a post internet world.

I even began compiling content as I did back in the day with Joe (with a VCR to boot; gotta keep it old school), in hopes to doing “something” with it all. With the idea of possibly doing a zine, maybe a real deal book. I’ve written about cable access a bit around here before a tiny bit, and got a surprising among of attention from folks with similar interests, plus there was the obligatory Tumblr, but have simply been too busy with other projects (should maybe get my way, WAY overdue video game zine out the door before doing one about cable access, me thinks) and life in general to really do something. Yet the idea has always been in back of my mind.

And over the years I’ve tried my best to compile as much data on my favorite shows of the past. Unfortunately, that part hasn’t been easy; almost next to nothing exists online as it pertains to most shows, though there are a few exceptions. Not only was I able to learn more about Concrete TV, perhaps the most iconic NYC cable access show of them all, I’ve actually become friends with its creator (who was kind enough to pass along his latest episodes after their world premier screening last weekend). But of all the shows that still stick out, from the glory days, and which I’ve tried for years to get more intel online, but in vein, was Madam Chao’s. Every few years I’d do a Google search for the name, and nothing would ever come up.

Until yesterday. That’s when I discovered a new website and a bunch of episodes on YouTube, which has been slowly uploaded over the past two years. It was like a man who had been crawling across the desert, with the sun beating down, coming across an oasis and taking that first sip of ice cold, crystal clear water. Spent the entirely of yesterday (save for a quick Skype chat with my bosses up north and necessary food/bathroom/sleep breaks) to watch almost everything on the channel. It’s perhaps worth noting how, whenever I tried showing an old episode on tape to girlfriends and most folks period, they’d tap out after 15 seconds. Yet Joe and I used to watch each and every episode in their entirety. Often forgetting to blink.

Now, as clichéd as it sounds, Madam Chao’s defies description. The only way I can put it requires knowledge of the aforementioned semi-famous cable access show (sorry). And that’s how… if Concrete TV is a party mix that will shake everyone’s ass on the dance floor, then Madam Chao’s is a death metal concert in which everyone is being stomped to death in the pit. The following is just a taste, and am not joking when I say that those are the somewhat easily offended should not watch. Though I’m not f*cking around when I say that those who are prone to epilepsy should absolutely not press play:

Madam Chao has always been a mystery, and there’s still much that I don’t know, though I’ve only begun digging deeper. Am still not sure if it’s a he/she/they/it, but I do know that the show began in 1995 and production ceased in 2005. Not every episode is on the YouTube channel, but I get the sense that at least almost 400 were made, which is a lot, considering all the work involved in making just one. Along the way Madam Chao began performing live, at exhibitions across the globe, and recently started a project called Necro Natal, which has since become Nemesis Semen. He/she/they/it also has a Soundcloud, and according to that, is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Though what excites me most is to know that Madam Chao is still active, and even up for collaborations, like this one with iamoutofideas1:

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