Anatomy of THE Groove 12/19/2014 Andre’s Pick: “System Of Survival” by Earth Wind & Fire

Following the creatively messy and less than successful late 1983 album Electric Universe, Earth Wind & Fire split up. After a few years of solo releases from Phillip Bailey and Maurice White,the pair reunited with Verdine and Andrew Woolfolk of the original Columbia lineup. To succeed supplicant guitarist Roland Bautista,they band were joined by Sheldon Reynolds-who has already succeeded another famous funk guitarist in The Commodores’ Thomas McClary after 1983-incidentally the same year EWF split up in the first place. During the late 1980’s Cameo,Con Funk Shun,The Bar Kays and Ghe Commodores were all paring down to smaller,more synthesizer focused lineups.

Since electronics were to some degree blamed for the musical reasons that may have broken up the band? It was interesting that EWF took a similar path to many of their funk contemporaries by paring down to a smaller lineup. Especially since the band had been most known for it’s distinct horn section. At the same time? This comeback probably clicked on a very important point at just the right time and when the band were in a good position to do so. This came fully in the form of the 1987 album Touch The World. And a lead off hit single from the album that represented something of a game changer not merely for EWF but one that had been progressing over the last year or so in funky dance music in general.

The song begins with the sound of a radio dial being switched around as a voice continually repeats “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. After several news snippets the song goes into Ronald Reagan saying “I’m not going to tell lies to the American people. I’ll leave that to others”-with that last line repeated two additional times before a vocoderized voice is heard saying “system of survival” before a chiming synth and a very fast dance rhythm and bass synth come into the song. Throughout the song? The bluesy main chorus goes into a call and response lead vocal between Maurice White and a rather digitally processed  bass voice-followed by a counter refrain from Bailey’s renowned falsetto.

During the bridge of the song there is a re-visitation of the voice speaking “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. This time the voice goes onto say “the president has yet to address the issue of money”.  After this the synth bass line leads back into a passionate lead of call and response “yeah yeah’s” from Maurice and Phillip before going into a spirited melodic improvisation of the basic song itself. The song leads out with Maurice again having a musical call and response with the horn section saying “ah,lets work” as the horns continually respond very much in classic James Brown funk fashion for the rest of the song. On the last horn break a low voice again repeats the songs title before it fades fully into a amplified,processed electronic line.

Considering the emergence of socially conscious hip-hop from KRS-1 and Public Enemy in 1986 and 1987? It seemed more than appropriate that the classic funk acts that had so influenced those people would have their own commentary on the situation-stated lyrically and musically from their perspective. Musically speaking this song features the same sort of JB style vocal/horn interaction that EWF had championed during their late 70’s heyday. At the same time,it featured the quick dance tempo that was very inherent to the new jack swing style that was about to become the mainstream funk based black dance sound for the next half decade or so. Still,the rhythm itself is again out of the classic funk school from which EWF came.

Conceptually this song has a rather similar approach to where the conscious funk based hip-hoppers were going. Rather than using samples,they used found radio news sounds to very clearly illustrate than President Reagan’s economic policies on urban America in particular. It doesn’t come from the point of view of the younger people who were facing this situation more directly. It was coming from people who had come directly out of the hopeful futurism of civil rights and black power. People who,in early middle age were beginning to see what they’d worked hard for beginning to crumble before their eyes. The usually hopeful Maurice White even sings at one point “I’m looking for somebody new to lead the revolution”. Even after such a near cynical reaction,White comes right back with his homegrown optimism with “so I dance,it’s my system of survival”. Just as with many American’s under Reaganomics? EWF were re-emerging with new membership,and still going strong doing their own dance of life!

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, James Brown, New Jack Swing

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