Author Archives: Zach Hoskins

About Zach Hoskins

Grad school dropout. Blogs about Prince at princesongs.org, other stuff at dystopiandanceparty.com. Tweets occasionally @zchoskins.

Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: Stevie Wonder’s “Love Light in Flight”

It’s a well-known fact that most white music critics don’t “get” ’80s Stevie Wonder. And for a long time, I was no exception: I took as gospel the truism that it was all downhill for Stevie after Hotter Than July, and I levied what I considered to be the appropriate amount of scorn on his material from the era. You know that scene in High Fidelity where Barry throws the guy out of the store because he wants to buy “I Just Called to Say I Love You?” That was basically me.

But with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes a less snobby attitude toward popular culture. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” But I’m not too proud to say that I love another song from Wonder’s much-reviled 1984 soundtrack to The Woman in Red, “Love Light in Flight”–how could any self-respecting Jheri Curl fan not? Like another song I wrote about for Jheri Curl June this year–“Ooh Love” by Kashif–it’s a stellar example of a new subgenre I pulled out of my ass called “sophisticurl”: you can picture it being played at a yacht party, with discreetly jheri-curled attendees wearing Coogi sweaters and clinking their champagne glasses. It’s genteel, but indelibly funky: a vibe that Stevie Wonder nailed effortlessly in his middle years. And it doesn’t even require an appreciation of poorly-aged Gene Wilder comedies to enjoy!

As I explained back at the beginning of the month, I’ll be posting highlights from my blog Dystopian Dance Party’s annual celebration of ’80s R&B, Jheri Curl June, every Saturday this month (so, one more next week!). For more, you can visit Dystopian Dance Party every weekday.

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Filed under 1980's, 1984, Kashif, Stevie Wonder, Uncategorized

Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: The Bar-Kays’ “She Talks to Me with Her Body”

Few groups in the history of R&B have been as long-lived, or as chameleonic, as the Bar-Kays. The Memphis group got their start in the mid-’60s as a session band for Stax Records, with songs like 1967’s “Soul Finger” fitting squarely into the label’s signature sound. At the turn of the decade, like many other soul groups, they went psychedelic, backing Isaac Hayes on his epochal 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, then recording their own Black Rock. In the ’70s, they were pure funk. So it should come as no surprise that the Bar-Kays were among the first groups of their vintage to recognize the wind change in the early 1980s and embrace the style we at Dystopian Dance Party like to call Jheri Curl Music.

Like last year’s Jheri Curl June alums Ebonee Webb–who shared with the Bar-Kays a manager and producer, Allen A. Jones–the main frame of reference was Prince, with whining Minneapolis-style keyboards taking the place of traditional Memphis-soul horns (and no, that horn section miming in the Soul Train video above isn’t fooling anyone). But there’s also more than a touch of Zapp in the band’s 1982 single “She Talks to Me with Her Body,” from the short snatches of talkbox to that “More Bounce to the Ounce” bass. In fact–and ironically–the only thing that wasn’t Jheri Curl about the Bar-Kays in 1982 was lead singer Larry Dodson’s hair, which appears to be the same heavily-processed dome he wore to Wattstax in 1973, looking a little worse for wear. C’mon man, get some activator at least!

Like I said last Saturday, I’ll be posting highlights from this year’s Jheri Curl June for the rest of the month. For more, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday!

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Filed under Isaac Hayes, Soul Train, Stax Records, The Bar Kays

Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: Jesse Johnson

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Every year in the month of June, my blog Dystopian Dance Party throws a month-long celebration of the wet, silky ’80s R&B we like to call Jheri Curl Music: a kind of hazily-defined intersection of post-disco boogie, electro-funk, and the Minneapolis Sound that, like pornography, is unmistakable when you hear it. And for the past three years, we’ve commenced our Jheri Curl June festivities with profiles of major figures in the style, timed to line up with their birthdays in the beginning of June. In 2014, it was Prince (born June 7); in 2015, it was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the former born June 6); last year, it was L.A. Reid (June 7 again). But until now, we’ve never managed to make time for another architect whose birthday falls as close to the beginning of June as possible: June 1, 1960. I’m talking, of course, about Jesse Johnson.

Jesse, in our defense, hasn’t exactly been a stranger to Jheri Curl June. His “Be Your Man” was our second-ever JCJ post back in 2014, and we’ve also considered his work both as a member of the Time and as the producer of late-’80s Minneapolis funk-rockers dáKRASH. But we’ve never taken a deep dive into his music–and that’s a damn shame, because whatever Johnson might have lacked in the innovation of his former associates Prince, Jam, and Lewis, he more than made up for with some of the strongest pure Jheri Curl Music of the mid-to-late 1980s. In other words, there’s no better person with whom to launch our fourth annual celebration of all things wet and silky in ’80s R&B music. So let’s get to it!

The Time in 1981 (Jesse Johnson far right); photo stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.

Jesse Johnson was born in Rock Island, Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, but he will forever be associated with Minneapolis: the city where he launched his career in 1981 as lead guitarist for Prince’s first and greatest “protégé group,” the Time. Much has been made of the Time as a kind of dummy act for their svengali‘s straight-up R&B material, but Johnson in particular played a greater role in the studio than has been acknowledged; recently, for example, he released his own early demo version of the group’s second-biggest single, “Jungle Love,” long widely assumed to have been written by Prince alone. Yet, like so many other musicians over whom Prince ruled with a lacy fist, Johnson’s independence chafed against his employer’s desire for control, and by the end of 1984 he and the rest of the Time had jumped ship.

© A&M Records

Like his fellow Time escapees, Jam and Lewis, Johnson started out as a songwriter and producer: a role he’d already inhabited while in the Prince camp, penning not only “Jungle Love” but also “Bite the Beat” for the Vanity 6 project. In fact, while Jimmy and Terry are the bigger names, Jesse actually beat them to the punch in one respect: contributing two songs to Janet Jackson’s 1984 sophomore album Dream Street, a year and a half before Jam and Lewis did Control. The first of these tracks, “Pretty Boy,” may not be “Nasty,” but it’s a nice, fizzy dose of New Wave-inflected jheri curl pop; and Johnson himself re-recorded the second track, “Fast Girls,” for a B-side in 1985 (his version is the one included here). After Janet, Jesse’s next major break came in the unlikely shape of the Breakfast Clubsoundtrack:  his “Heart Too Hot to Hold,” a duet with fellow A&M artist Stephanie Spruill, obviously fell short of Simple Minds’ epochal “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in capturing the zeitgeist, but I can’t imagine he minds when those residuals come in.

© A&M Records

For all intents and purposes, however, Johnson’s debut as a solo artist came with the release of his 1985 album Jesse Johnson’s Revue. It was at this point when his characteristic take on the Minneapolis Sound, hinted at in his earlier production work, came into full bloom: surprisingly keyboard-driven for a guitarist, explicitly New Wave-influenced, and with plenty of the fiery guitar solos that had been his specialty in the Time. Songs like “Can You Help Me,” “Let’s Have Some Fun,” and the yearning ballad “I Want My Girl” established Johnson as a kind of middle ground between the Time’s good-time funk and the sexier, artier stylings of Prince.

© A&M Records

Indeed, it’s clear that in 1985 A&M was positioning Johnson as a potential competitor to W.B.’s Prince: it didn’t hurt, of course, that Jesse was a dead ringer for his former employer, with the mandatory mid-’80s thin moustache and even a trademark color, pink, to match Prince’s purple. Johnson was less comfortable with these comparisons, however; and his response, the B-side “Free World,” became one of his most enduring songs. Not only did it address the elephant in the room–“Nobody likes the way I hold my mic / They say it’s too much like my friend”–but it was also an influential work of electro-funk on its own merits: just try and listen to the Egyptian Lover’s “Freak-a-Holic” and tell me he didn’t have “Free World” on the brain.

© A&M Records

Jesse Johnson’s Revue wasn’t the runaway success it should have been, but A&M wasn’t ready to give up on turning Jesse into “their” Prince: he even got his own protégés, Ta Mara and the Seen, led by the crossover-friendly (read: white) singer Margie Cox, a.k.a. Ta Mara. Their “Everybody Dance” was as “Jesse Johnson” as Vanity 6 had been “Prince,” and has become as much a part of the Minneapolis Sound’s legacy. Johnson also made time for another Brat Pack soundtrack in early 1986, contributing the New Wave-y “Get to Know Ya” to Pretty in Pink.

© A&M Records

The followup to Jesse Johnson’s Revue, 1986’s Shockadelica, carried on the inevitable comparisons to Prince–though this time through no fault of Johnson’s own. The story goes that Prince, after hearing the name for Jesse’s new album, tried to convince him to write a title track–then, when Jesse declined, went ahead and wrote it himself, leaking it to Minneapolis radio so listeners would assume he’d come up with the title first.  It’s unfortunate, because Shockadelica shows a lot of musical growth for Johnson: plucking Sly Stone out of his self-imposed obscurity for the lead single “Crazay” and incorporating prominent freestyle influences on “Baby Let’s Kiss.” But on some level, at least, Johnson also got the last laugh: his “Do Yourself a Favor” nicks Prince’s unreleased arrangement of “If You See Me” by Minneapolis Sound godfather Pepé Willie, but credits Willie alone, ensuring he got all the royalties.

© A&M Records

Shockadelica was another modest, but not overwhelming success, and Johnson continued to produce for other artists, collaborating with Ta Mara on “I Need You” by Paula Abdul. His next album, 1988’s Every Shade of Love, fell short of the previous records’ sales, but it still had some gems in “Love Struck”–Johnson’s biggest hit since “Crazay”–and the mellow, soulful “I’m Just Wanting You.”

It’s convenient, for our purposes, that the first wave of Johnson’s solo career ended along with what we like to call the “jheri curl era”: after Every Shade, he still contributed to soundtracks and other artists’ projects, but wouldn’t reemerge with an album of his own until 1996’s rock-oriented Bare My Naked Soul. Today–after another, 14-year leave of absence–he’s arguably at his highest profile since the ’80s: performing with D’Angelo and (occasionally) the original lineup of the Time, most recently at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Earlier this year, he played to a packed house at the Minneapolis club Bunker’s to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his old sparring partner Prince’s death. Things, it seems, have come full circle; Johnson has both outlasted Prince and become more inseparable than ever with his legacy. And he’s built a hell of a legacy of his own: one we’re proud to celebrate this Jheri Curl June, and many more in the future.

For more Jheri Curl June, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday for the rest of this month; I’ll also be posting highlights for my remaining Saturday guest posts. See you again soon!

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Filed under Janet Jackson, Jesse Johnson, Jesse Johnson's Revue, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Pepe Willie, Prince, Sly Stone, The Time

Harriet Brown Does “Prince Weird” Right

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Is there any other musical influence as pervasive, yet elusive as Prince? Practically everyone in the contemporary pop landscape is influenced by him on some level–from Bruno Mars to Beyoncé to Young Thug–yet hardly anyone is able to capture what really made him great. D’Angelo has some of his electrifying stage presence; Miguel channels a bit of his sex appeal (albeit in watered-down, heteronormative form); DāM-FunK evokes his studio wizardry and occasional cantankerousness; but none of these are adequate replacements–nor would any of them claim to be.

Especially inimitable, and especially missed, is Prince’s weirdness. While the aforementioned Bruno Mars can do a serviceable enough version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine him plumbing the psychosexual depths of a “Shockadelica,” let alone an “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It’s that ineffably eccentric quality that sets Prince apart from his imitators: most of whom, quite frankly, know better than to even try.

To be clear, I’m not trying to set up an argument for Inglewood-via-Bay Area artist Harriet Brown as the one true inheritor of “Prince weird”; that would be hyperbole in the extreme. But of the legion of contemporary artists whose music echoes the Purple One’s, Brown is the one who seems to get “it” most. Just listen to the digitally-manipulated voices he puts on in the intro of his recent album, Contact, shifting from “Bob George” low to “Camille” high; or the way his elastic falsetto bends almost comically on the line “sometimes I think I’m an alien on your planet” from “ESP.”  Or hell, just look at the guy: that exaggerated bowl cut, like an Akira character come to life, with an inscrutable, gender-bending stage name that doesn’t seem to have any real-world frame of reference (unless he’s just a really big fan of the author of Brave Girl Eating). “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me,” Brown told the LA Weekly in a profile last month–an awfully Princely statement if ever there was one.

But I also don’t want to give the impression that Brown is just an imitator; his sound certainly channels Prince, but it doesn’t sound like an ’80s throwback. If anything, he sounds a bit like if Prince had evolved more gracefully into the ’90s and 2000s, subtly incorporating the influences of hip- and trip-hop into his sound rather than clumsily attempting to appropriate them. In other words, Contact is forward-looking, 21st-century music: music that builds on the past as a foundation, rather than trying to retreat into it. And that may be the best credit to Prince’s legacy of all.

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Filed under 2010's, 2017, Prince

A Time to Love, 12 Years Later: Reconsidering Stevie Wonder’s Last Studio Album on His 67th Birthday

timetolove

Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.


What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.

Calling from the

Calling from the depths of the MOR gutter; © Motown Records

In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.

And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.

To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”

It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Music Reviewing, Prince, Stevie Wonder

Welcome 2 the Dawn: Grading the Purple Rain Deluxe Edition against My Own Expectations

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Hard as it is to believe, it’s been over three years since NPG Records and Warner Bros. announced the new, expanded Purple Rain remaster–the first, one would expect, of several such projects in the years to come. One of the first pieces I wrote for my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, was a list of demands humble requests for bonus tracks I wanted to see included in the package: a post I was able to revive here on Andresmusictalk the second time the reissue was announced, last fall. Now, six months later, we finally have a track list, and the two configurations of the album–Deluxe and “Deluxe Expanded”–are available for preorder, to be released on June 23. So, I thought, in the spirit of reissues, why not recycle this three-year-old content once again–you know, for old time’s sake? Let’s take a look at my predictions from April 2014, and see whether or not I really had my finger on the pulse of Paisley Park:

14. Dez Dickerson’s “Modernaire”

13. Vanity 6’s Version of “Sex Shooter

12. Prince’s Versions of Songs from the Time’s Ice Cream Castle

Well, I can’t say I started strong. For better or worse, the new Purple Rain contains nothing but music by Prince and the Revolution: no side projects or protégé material, even the stuff that appeared in the movie. Really, though, I can’t say I’m surprised; and as much as I love the Time and Vanity 6, I wouldn’t want something of theirs to make the cut over a proper Prince track from the Vault. Let’s save these for the expanded reissues of Ice Cream Castle and Apollonia 6 (those are coming, right?).

11. “Extraloveable”

Now this one I am actually a little disappointed by, though again not surprised–both because of the reasons I noted in my original article (it was already released, albeit in bowldlerized/Andy Allo-ized form; it’s mad rapey), and because it’s more of a transitional track between 1999 and Purple Rain: there’s still a chance that it will come out with the inevitable 1999 reissue. I still want to hear it without that awful tape chew in the circulating recordings, but now just isn’t the time.

10. “All Day, All Night”/The Dance Electric”

All right, now we’re cooking! I’m giving myself this one because I hedged my bets, and we are in fact getting Prince’s version of André Cymone’s “The Dance Electric”; and who knows, maybe there are plans in the future to release the 1984 birthday concert where “All Day, All Night” was initially recorded. Would I have liked to have gotten both? Of course; frankly, I’d have loved for this thing to be eight discs long. But if we only had to get one, as a studio track, “Dance Electric” is the logical choice.

9. “When Doves Cry” with Bass

The first real missed opportunity–though more for historical than for musical significance. We all know (assuming Susan Rogers told the truth, and/or Prince didn’t destroy it) that the bass line for “When Doves Cry” exists somewhere in the Vault. So, especially with a full third disc on the “Deluxe Expanded” edition devoted to alternate single mixes, would it have killed them to let us hear it? It’s frustrating, because I totally get the geeky completionist impulse behind that much-derided disc of alternate edits–but if NPG is going to cater to geeky completionists, why not go whole hog?

8. The Complete August 3, 1983 First Avenue Concert

Word on the street is, I was actually kind of right on this. You might recall that an earlier announcement of the set promised “two incredible albums of previously unreleased Prince music and two complete concert films,” but the final product contains only one DVD; based on rumors (and a leaked clip of the performance in previously-unseen high fidelity), it seems the Revolution’s live debut is still in the pipeline, but wasn’t ready in time for the June release date. A little disappointing, but whatever; as long as we get it eventually, I’m happy.

7. Prince and the Revolution: Live

Now here’s the concert we actually are getting in June: the Revolution’s March 1985 date in Syracuse, New York, previously released on VHS as Prince and the Revolution: Live. There’s been some complaints in the fan community about this–it isn’t the best Purple Rain show, it’s already out there, etc. Personally, though, I’m happy to have it cleaned up for a proper digital release; I, for one, haven’t seen it, because who wants to watch a VHS in 2017? Frankly, I barely want to watch DVDs in 2017, but I still look forward to experiencing this show in glorious SD.

6. “Electric Intercourse”

Another point for me–and as an added bonus, we can already hear it! When I wrote my original post, I thought “Electric Intercourse” was a long shot–this was back when it was widely assumed that the song’s “studio version” was just the 1983 First Avenue performance dressed up with a few overdubs. Turns out that it’s actually an entirely different recording, and…well, to be honest, I found it slightly disappointing. But even below-average material from Purple Rain-era Prince is decidedly above-average compared to the output of mere mortals, and I can’t overstate the thrill of finally being able to hear the song.

5. The Extended Version of “Computer Blue”

Really, I’m not even going to pat my back for this one: the extended cut of “Computer Blue” (a.k.a. the “Hallway Speech” version) was a shoo-in for any Purple Rain reissue worth its salt; if it hadn’t made the track list, there would be riots outside Paisley Park even as we speak. But I’m still glad to have it, if only because now a whole new audience can hear the whole, brilliant psychodrama. Hearing this for the first time was one of those moments that transformed me from a reasonably normal person into a hardcore Prince fan: it’s thrilling to think how many others are about to get the same opportunity.

4. “We Can Fuck” (“We Can Funk”)

Now this, on the other hand, is a genuine surprise; and, to be honest, I’m pretty skeptical that the owner of the world’s most famous swear jar would have approved of this song–one that even a pre-Jehovah’s Witness Prince saw fit to censor for 1990’s Graffiti Bridge–being released in its unexpurgated form. Not that I’m complaining, of course: I’ve been dying to hear a nice-sounding, complete take of “We Can Fuck” basically since I became aware of its existence. And if Prince, wherever he is, has a problem with it, I’ll gladly toss a few bucks in his ghostly swear jar for the privilege.

3. “Possessed”

Not quite as exciting as “We Can Fuck,” but still welcome: “Possessed” is a jam, one of those bootleg tracks that totally blew my mind the first time I heard it. There’s been some speculation that the version included on the set is different from either of the takes currently in circulation, but I’m not even going to set my expectations that high; I’ll be satisfied with just a good copy of the one I’ve been listening to for 10 years. Anything more, I’ll consider to be a pleasant surprise.

2. “Erotic City (‘make love not war Erotic City come alive’)”

Another no-brainer–but then, you’d think keeping one of the most beloved 12″ singles in the history of the format accessible for purchase would have been a “no-brainer,” too. Yet here we are, in 2017, still awaiting the first official appearance of the extended (and far, far superior) “Erotic City” on CD and digital music services. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am; but at least Warner/NPG is finally making amends. 33 years late is still better than never.

1. Something We’ve Never Even Heard About

Now this is the one I’m most surprised, and pleased, to be wrong about. Unlike most of the other tracks on this list, I have no idea what “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” sounds like. I have no idea what “Love and Sex” sounds like (though I’ve heard good things). I did hear “Velvet Kitty Cat” when it leaked recently, and…meh, but I’ll take it. The fact that the curators of the new Purple Rain collection took care to select some songs that weren’t even in wide circulation among bootleg traders–and promoted them as such!–suggests that the future is pretty bright when it comes to music from Prince’s Vault. Of course, the deluxe Purple Rain isn’t perfect: “Wednesday” and “Traffic Jam” are missing, as are the 30-minute “I Would Die 4 U” and the longer edit of “17 Days.” But when I look at what we are getting, it’s hard for me to complain. Three years ago, I fully expected to be disappointed by whatever Warner Bros. came out with; now, I’m actually excited. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

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Filed under Andre Cymone, Apollonia, NPG Records, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, The Time, Vanity, Warner Bros., When Doves Cry

Vive la Révolution: Seeing the Revolution (Without Prince) in Silver Spring, MD

revolution

I have to admit: when I first heard the Revolution were reuniting, I wasn’t sure what to think. The very notion of the Revolution without Prince sounded bizarre, like Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding getting together to tour as the Experience sans Hendrix. But when I read the reports from their first set of shows in Minneapolis last year, suddenly it made sense. This was, in many ways, less a conventional rock reunion than an act of collective mourning. All of us, the majority of whom never met the man in person, felt a profound loss when Prince passed; so how does one even fathom what it meant to the people who shared some of his most successful and creatively fertile years? And if listening to “Sometimes It Snows in April” helps to process our grief, can we really blame Wendy and Lisa–who were, as Wendy recalled the other night, actually present and involved in the song’s composition–for singing it to process theirs?

Yet even after I understood the reunion, I still didn’t know what to expect. I was two years old when the Revolution disbanded, so they always seemed frozen in time to me: forever lip-syncing on the First Avenue stage in Purple Rain. Did I really want to see them in their fifties–not to mention without the pint-sized whirling dervish of musical and sexual energy who had always been the group’s unambiguous focal point?

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Filed under Bobby Z, Brown Mark, concerts, Lisa Coleman, Matt Fink, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Wendy Melvoin

The 8 Records I’m Most Excited about Not Buying for Record Store Day 2017

wreckastowday

I tried Record Store Day for the first time last year, and was woefully unprepared for the task; by the time I made it to my local wrecka stow, everything I was remotely interested in had already been snatched up by more enterprising/experienced shoppers. This year, I won’t be making the festivities at all: my family plans for the morning of April 22, unfortunately, do not involve any crate-digging. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look at the list of special releases and sigh wistfully at what might have been. Here are a few highlights:

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“All Together Now” by André 3000 (7″, ltd. to 5000)

I did not know the most delightfully weird member of OutKast covered one of the most delightfully goofy songs by the Beatles. Now I do know, but there’s no way this thing is gonna stay in stock past the ten-minute mark. At least I can listen to it on YouTube.

beatles

“Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” by the Beatles (7″, ltd. to 7000)

Speaking of the Beatles, there’s no rational reason for me to own this. I don’t even particularly love 7″ singles: if I’m gonna buy a piece of plastic with two songs on it, it’d better be at least 10″ in diameter. But I was a Beatles fanatic as a preteen, and seeing that 1967-era picture on the sleeve hits me straight in the nostalgia zone.

bowpromocrackedactor
BOWPROMO (box set, ltd. to 5000) and
Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74) (3-LP set, ltd. to 5000)
by David Bowie

Now these I do actually want, but to be frank, I doubt I could afford them: new pressing, multi-LP sets are a little rich for my blood, especially in limited editions. But come on: raw mixes of Hunky Dory-era Bowie? A live set I haven’t heard from the Diamond Dogs tour, one of his most fascinating and underrated periods? If I was even slightly more comfortably middle-class than I am, I’d be all over these. But I can take comfort in knowing that all 10,000 of these records will be hoovered up within minutes anyway.

groove

“Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite (12″, ltd. to 3000)

If you catch me in the right kind of mood, I might make a wildeyed claim that “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite is the greatest song of all time. And while I probably wouldn’t be right, I also know I wouldn’t be wrong. I would love to own this on vinyl and hear that slide whistle hook in superior fidelity. Alas, this April, it’s not meant to be.

prince-pic

“Little Red Corvette”/”1999” by Prince (7″ picture disc, ltd. to 5000)

Does anybody actually like picture discs–listening to them, I mean? I don’t especially care for them–I like playing records more than I like looking at them–but god damn if I don’t want this one. Sadly, I might as well just print out the inner sleeve pic from 1999 and découpage it over a regular 7″ single, because with Record Store Day falling the day after the one-year anniversary of His Purple Majesty’s passing, there is approximately no way in hell 5000 copies will survive a single day’s demand.

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RSD 2017 Tote Bag by Run the Jewels (ltd. to 2500)

This isn’t even a record, but the artwork is dope and it would go great with the T-shirt I picked up from Run the Jewels’ Run the World tour back in January. But now I just have to hold back my jealous tears when I see some lucky asshole walking around with it.

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What Time is It? by the Time (LP, ltd. to 2500)

Are you kidding me? The motherfucking Time?! This actually pisses me off for two reasons, because an album like this deserves a full-fledged re-release, not a limited-run one-off for Record Store Day. But I can’t promise that if I saw a brand new pressing on April 22, I wouldn’t be doing “The Walk” out of the store with it in hand. Fortunately–or unfortunately–that won’t be an option for me.

In all seriousness, though, missing RSD this year isn’t that big a deal: after all, there are approximately 364 other equally good days in the year to patronize our local record stores. If you’d like to see a few of my favorites, from Northern Virginia to Reykjavík, Iceland, check out my Wrecka Stow video series on Dystopian Dance Party. And if you make it to the stores on the 22nd, buy yourself something nice in my honor.

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Filed under 2017, Andre 3000, David Bowie, Deee-Lite, OutKast, Prince, Record Store Day, Record Stores, The Beatles, The Time, Vinyl

My Type of Hype: A House Party Series Retrospective

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I’m a pretty big fan of House Party: the definitive early-’90s African American teen comedy, starring pop-rappers Kid ‘n Play and directed by Reginald Hudlin. A couple springs ago, my sister and I binge-watched the whole series over the course of a few evenings, an experience that somehow did not leave me permanently scarred; so these days, whenever the end of March/beginning of April rolls around, I think about House Party, the sequels it spawned, and the moment in urban youth culture it inimitably captured and preserved. If you, like me, have fond memories of the House Party films, read this post and you just might learn something new–especially about the franchise’s lesser-seen third and fourth installments.

The original House Party, an expanded remake of a student film Hudlin made while attending Harvard University in 1986, structures itself loosely around a single day in the lives of a group of high school seniors. Peter, a.k.a. “Play” (Christopher “Play” Martin), is throwing the titular house party while his parents are out of town. His friend Christopher, or “Kid” (Christopher “Kid” Reid), wants to use the party as an opportunity to showcase his “dope lyrics” as an M.C., but his plans are jeopardized when he runs afoul of the school bullies: hulking “Stab” and “Zilla” and diminutive, squeaky-voiced “Pee Wee,” played respectively by real-life brothers Paul Anthony, Brian “B-Fine,” and Lucien “Bowlegged Lou” George of the R&B group Full Force. Also attending the festivities are Tisha Campbell as the “bougie” upper-class girl, Sidney, who harbors a crush on Kid; A.J. Johnson as her worldly friend from the projects, Sharane; and Martin Lawrence–in only his second feature film role, after Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  (1989)–as Bilal, the party’s irascible D.J.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

The film isn’t united by a strong narrative thread, so much as a series of episodic setpieces and gags. There are plenty of iconic moments: the early scene when Kid crashes an Alpha Delta Sigma reunion D.J.’ed by none other than George Clinton; the visit to Sharane’s house, where her kid brother makes a pitcher of Kool-Aid using an entire bag of sugar; the rap battle between Kid and Play; and, of course, the part when Kid’s “Pop”–played by veteran comedian Robin Harris, who died just nine days after the film’s release–shows up at the party and proceeds to hilariously roast several of the guests. Without a doubt the most famous scene is the epic team dance battle between Kid, Play, Sidney, and Sharane, which features Kid ‘n Play doing their signature “Funky Charleston” dance to the tune of Full Force’s 1989 hit “Ain’t My Type of Hype.” But my personal favorite moment comes later in the film, when Kid and the Full Force bullies are hauled into jail and Kid has to use his “dope lyrics” to distract the other inmates, who bizarrely already want to rape him despite the fact that they are only in an overnight holding cell.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

House Party isn’t exactly fine cinema, but it has a youthful energy and verve that is undeniable to this day. It’s certainly responsible for whatever lasting cultural relevance Kid ‘n Play might have accrued: while supposedly the lead roles were written for another pop-rap duo, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, they suit Reid and Martin much better–if only because they give Hudlin and the cast license to work in a lot of cracks about Reid’s trademark extreme high-top fade, from the cops who call him “Eraserhead” to Pop’s comparison of his head to a “witch’s broom.”

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

The original House Party cost an estimated $2.5 million to make, and grossed over ten times that amount in the box office; with that kind of return on investment, a sequel was practically inevitable. House Party 2: The Pajama Jam! released in October 1991, only 19 months after the first film, and it’s basically a textbook case of diminishing returns. This time around, Kid and his now-girlfriend Sidney are attending Harris University, a fictional historically black college named after the late Robin Harris, while Play is trying to get his music career off the ground. Kid struggles with adapting to college life and with mounting tensions in his relationship with Sidney, whose politically-minded roommate Zora (Queen Latifah) doesn’t approve of him. Then, Play “borrows” his friend’s scholarship money and gives it to Sheila Landreaux (Iman), a con artist posing as a music promoter. In order to save Kid from being kicked out of school, the pair attempt to raise funds by staging another party: “the mother of house parties, a pajama jammy jam.” But the Full Force brothers–now inexplicably working security detail for the university–are once again in pursuit.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

As you can probably tell by the summary, the second House Party is a lot more plot-driven than the first, but it somehow manages to feel more aimless; the “pajama jam” itself doesn’t even kick off until about two-thirds through the movie. Producers/directors George Jackson and Doug McHenry–fresh off their success producing Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991)–depart from the freewheeling slice-of-life tone of Hudlin’s original and pile on the camp, while still peppering the film with recycled gags like Daryl “Chill” Mitchell bumping into Bilal’s turntables while he dances and Randy Harris being caught in flagrante and responding with gunfire. There are, however, a few redeeming qualities. Kamron of the short-lived alternative hip-hop group Young Black Teenagers makes his first appearance in the series as Kid’s roommate Jamal, a dreadlocked white boy who earns his new friends’ respect with his love for “big booty,” “dice,” and “bean pies.” And the soundtrack is even better than the first film’s, with an infectious title track by Tony! Toni! Toné! and Kid ‘n Play’s own classic “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody.”

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

Three years after The Pajama Jam, the saga continued with House Party 3: House Party with a Vengeance. This threequel picks up with Kid about to settle down and get married to his new fiancée, Veda (Angela Means), only for drama to arise after Sidney reemerges in his life. Meanwhile, Play is still working his way up in the music business, managing a female rap act with the amazing name “Sex as a Weapon” (played by T-Boz, Left-Eye, and Chilli of TLC). Play books the girls for a concert with ruthless promoter Showboat (Michael Colyar), but promptly becomes the target of Showboat’s wrath after they fire him and renege on their contract to play the show. And Showboat’s enforcers are out for blood for reasons of their own: they’re none other than Stab, Zilla, and Pee Wee, the bullies from the first two films.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

Jackson and McHenry stray even further from realism in House Party 3, particularly with their bizarre decision to integrate the canon of the 1990-91 Kid ‘n Play Saturday morning cartoon series. In the animated show, Kid and Play are accompanied by a talking dog, Hairy (portrayed by accomplished voice actor Danny Mann), who sports a mohawk and drives the duo’s tour bus. Astonishingly, he appears in a similar capacity in House Party 3, playing a major role in the film’s surprisingly action-packed climax. After Full Force crash Kid’s bachelor party, the dynamic duo make their escape in Play’s car with Hairy at the wheel. An action-packed car chase along the California coastline ensues; then, Hairy loses control of the car and drives over an embankment, sending the car plummeting off a cliff and into the water below.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

House Party with a Vengeance is probably best remembered for its cliffhanger ending, which signaled a new, darker turn for the series. In the film’s final scene, Play’s car is located along the Pacific coast. Bilal, Jamal, Veda, and Sidney all rush to the scene, and are hopeful when they see Hairy run toward them. But the car is empty. Kid and Play have disappeared. It’s only after the credits when viewers receive a glimmer of hope: the film fades back in, and a high-top fade rises slowly out of the water.

© New Line Cinema

© New Line Cinema

Despite this dramatic finale, viewers had to wait much longer than usual for the next installment. House Party 4 was trapped in development hell for seven years before it finally emerged in 2001, with the ominous subtitle The Last Party. It’s a strange sequel in pretty much every way. Kid and Play are absent for most of the film; having been missing for seven years, they are officially presumed dead in absentia, and their places have been taken by Jamal and Bilal–whose increased role can likely be attributed to Martin Lawrence’s then-recent resurgence in popularity with commercially successful films like Big Momma’s House (2000). Still mourning the “deaths” of their friends, the new central pair are tasked with throwing them the hypest of wakes. But they also face the psychological challenges of filling Kid and Play’s kickstepping shoes: especially Jamal, who as Sidney’s new boyfriend is being literally groomed to take Kid’s place, including adopting a manicured fade of his own–an homage to the relationship between James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

crygenically frozen KNP Heads

© New Line Cinema

As in the case of House Party 3The Last Party ends with an action sequence that feels at odds with the series’ original tone. First, Kid and Play make a soap-operatic appearance at their own wake, revealing that they had faked their own deaths to escape the wrath of Showboat and the Full Force bullies. Then, Stab, Zilla, and Pee Wee themselves crash the party–and, in the most controversial scene in the series, hold Sidney hostage, demanding the lives of Kid and Play in exchange for hers. Not seeing any other way out, Kid and Play dramatically step forward to sacrifice themselves. The Full Force brothers lead our heroes to an abandoned warehouse, where they plan to elaborately kill Kid and Play by lowering them into a vat of acid. But just as they’re about to go over the edge, the pair exchange a meaningful glance and break into their trademark dance, using the moves to disorient the bullies and knock them into the vat instead. Their success is short-lived, however: before Stab and Zilla plummet to their deaths, they grab Kid’s and Play’s legs, taking them down with them. At that moment, Bilal, Jamal, Sidney, and Hairy burst in and rush to save the dynamic duo. But it’s too late: the acid has destroyed their bodies from the neck down, leaving only their heads intact. Fortunately, Hairy is not only capable of operating a motor vehicle, but also apparently has expertise in cryogenics. The film ends, again, on a cliffhanger, with the multi-talented canine preparing Kid’s and Play’s heads to be cryogenically frozen until technology has sufficiently advanced for their lives to be restored (see photo above).

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© Warner Premiere

This time, though, fans never got the resolution to the House Party saga that they wanted. In the end, the closest thing to a House Party 5 we’ve received in the last decade was the direct-to-video House Party: Tonight’s the Nighta disappointingly white-washed South African coproduction that featured Kid and Play only in a brief post-credits cameo (see photo above)–and, since they were depicted as regular human music executives and not as cyborgs with transplanted heads, made it clear that House Parties 3 and have been officially retconned from the series canon.

Still, wherever the franchise may have gone in its latter days, it’s worth remembering House Party for what, at its best, it was: a fun snapshot of early ’90s hip-hop, Black teen fashion, and awesome, awesome hair. So go ahead, rediscover these cult classic films. It ain’t gonna hurt nobody.

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Filed under 1990s, film reviews, Full Force, George Clinton, Queen Latifah, TLC

Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

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Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Filed under Berklee College Of Music, Black History, Black Lives Matter, black power, Blues, Nina Simone, pro black, vocal jazz, Women