Author Archives: Zachary Hoskins

About Zachary Hoskins

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Founder and editor, Dystopian Dance Party. Tweets @zchoskins.

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

nina-1024x512

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

Women’s History Month: Yoko Ono and the Invention of Feminist Rock

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The last few years have seen a much-deserved critical rehabilitation for Yoko Ono: once reviled as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles (whatever that’s supposed to mean), she’s now widely recognized as a key figure in conceptual art; even her avant-garde music has entered the canon as an inspiration for punk and alternative rock. But one facet of Ono’s artistry that I think remains underrated are the more commercially-minded albums she released in the 1970s, while married to (and in collaboration with!) ex-Beatle John Lennon. These albums were not only, in many cases, more interesting than the records Lennon himself was releasing around the same time (yeah, I said it); they were also arguably the first serious attempts to marry rock music and radical feminism–decades before the riot grrrl movement, and using her famous husband’s musicians, no less.

On “Yang Yang,” from her 1973 masterpiece Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono takes a grinding blues-rock arrangement by the Greenwich Village street band Elephant’s Memory (with a certain “Joel Nohnn” sitting in on guitar) and pairs it with lyrics that make “I am Woman” sound like “Stand by Your Man”: “No kick is good enough for lifetime substitution / No brick will give you a lifetime consolation / And whether you dig it or not / We outnumber you in population / And leave your private institution / Get down to real communication / Leave your scene of destruction / And join us in revolution.” This is the stuff of radical women’s liberationist pamphlets, not mainstream rock albums released by the wives of former Beatles. And while, predictably, Yoko never got her proper due for inventing feminist rock, at least we can appreciate it now.

If this post has piqued your interest, check out the full-scale guide to Ono’s discography I wrote last year; last month, my sister and I also recorded a podcast about her larger influence as an artist. And of course, we’re writing about important contributions by women in music all March on our blog Dystopian Dance Party. And, if you’d like to start seriously getting into Yoko’s music, you’re in luck: Secretly Canadian Records is currently reissuing her albums on vinyl and streaming services, from 1968’s infamous Lennon collaboration Two Virgins to 1985’s Bill Laswell-produced (!) Starpeace. It’s quite the journey, but well worth checking out!

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Filed under John Lennon, New York, rock 'n' roll, rock guitar, The Beatles, Women

Women’s History Month: Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”

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This month on my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, we’re highlighting our favorite women artists to celebrate Women’s History Month. So I thought I would take the opportunity to cross-post a few pieces that Andre’s readers might be interested in, starting with today’s post on Tina Weymouth and the Tom Tom Club.

New York’s Talking Heads were many things, but as far as I’m concerned, they were most importantly the greatest white funk group of all time–and a lot of the credit belongs to their stoic, diminutive bassist, Tina Weymouth. Her unique style married P-Funk-inspired elasticity to the jerky rhythms of art-punk groups like Pere Ubu; she was also largely responsible, along with her husband and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, for introducing the rest of the band to the emergent sounds of hip-hop in the early ’80s. Basically, if you liked watching David Byrne dance in that big gray suit in Stop Making Sense, you can thank Tina Weymouth: without her influence, the beat he was dancing to would have been a lot less funky.

You can also thank Weymouth, and Frantz, for making Stop Making Sense happen in the first place. The story goes that they made their own 1981 album as Tom Tom Club when Byrne indicated he was quitting Talking Heads; it was only after he heard their lead single, “Genius of Love,” that he decided to reunite with the group and record 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. It’s easy to see why: “Genius” is one of the funkiest, most minimalist grooves ever set to wax, pairing Adrian Belew’s deconstructed Jimmy Nolen chicken-scratch with some heavily phased, dub-style percussion by Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, and a whole heap of New Wave quirk courtesy of the Tom Tom Club themselves. There’s a reason why the main riff has been sampled by everyone from Diddy and Mariah Carey to Grandmaster Flash (pictured above with Weymouth in 1982).

But there’s another reason why I’m highlighting “Genius of Love” for Women’s History Month, and that’s because it’s, well, unabashedly girly. We often fall into the trap of praising women artists for transcending feminine stereotypes, which can become its own kind of aesthetic cage: in order to be taken seriously, Women in Rock (or whatever) have to be rawer, tougher, and ballsier than their male counterparts. “Genius of Love” isn’t raw, tough, or ballsy; the vocals, by Tina and her sisters Laura and Lani, are sweet and feminine, and the lyrics are all about how much she loves her boyfriend. Even the music video, by future Max Headroom creators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, looks like the kind of thing an especially talented girl might doodle in her notebook during middle school. It’s a celebration of an oft-scorned “feminine” aesthetic, years before Taylor Swift and the “poptimism” movement made perceived girliness into a critical badge of honor, and it’s detectable as an influence in everyone from Swift to Sleigh Bells to our own Women’s History honoree, Grimes.

If you liked this post, remember to check in with Dystopian Dance Party for the rest of March–there’s a lot more where it came from! Thanks for reading!

 

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Filed under Adrian Belew, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Tina Weymouth, Women

The Rise of Prince is Out, and It’s Very Good

rise-of-princeAbout a month ago, I posted about a new Prince biography from the author of one of my favorites. Well, that book came out last Tuesday, and I’m happy to report that it’s a very good, well-researched read. Below is a review I wrote for my own blog, dance / music / sex / romance; I’m cross-posting it here because I think Andre has enough followers who might be interested. Long story short: If you’d like to read up on one of the biggest musical icons we lost in 2016, The Rise of Prince is a great place to start.

As I wrote in my post last month, Alex Hahn’s Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince was my first Prince biography, and it was until recently my first choice for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life from 1989 was quite well-written, but lacked a strong perspective on the artist due to its early publication date; Per Nilsen’s Dance, Music, Sex, Romance remains near-definitive in its level of detail, particularly about recording processes and unreleased material, but is arguably too dry and “in the weeds” for more casual fans. Possessed, in my opinion, struck the perfect balance. It combined a gripping but unshowy writing style with Nilsen’s deep, journalistic research acumen, while also presenting a fascinating enough narrative arc for even non-obsessives to enjoy the glimpse at the man behind the music. It was juicy, but not tawdry; even the negative bits (which, it must be said, remain controversial in some segments of the Prince fan community) felt justified, not to mention backed up by multiple sources. If Possessed was still in print and The Rise of Prince didn’t exist, I’d still heartily recommend it.

But Possessed is no longer in print, and The Rise of Prince does exist; this alone would make it an easy recommendation, as the former book is fetching absurd used prices on Amazon and eBay, while the latter book can be had for as little as $8.99 on Kindle. More importantly, however, the new version is an improvement in almost every way. Though I recognized brief passages of Possessed in The Rise of Prince, the book as a whole has been thoroughly overhauled: this is not just a quick cash-in reissue. Of particular note are the early chapters on Prince’s family background and youth, which to my knowledge represent the first significant original research conducted in this area since the 1990s. If nothing else, these should be required reading for anyone with ambitions to write about Prince in the future: Hahn and his new co-author, Laura Tiebert, are perhaps the first biographers to approach Prince’s family history as journalists and historians rather than rock critics, and they have done much to winnow out the facts from decades’ worth of myth created, in no small part, by Prince himself.

The other, less tangible advantage for The Rise of Prince is, quite simply, perspective. I’ve seen much being made on social media about the book’s title, which excises the “…and Fall” half of Possessed’s subtitle in favor of a more optimistic tone. But I would caution fans from assuming this means the book is entirely positive–or, for that matter, that it should be. The Rise of Prince ends in late 1988: arguably an artistic high point for Prince, but inarguably a commercial and personal low point. It is, at first glance, an odd way to revise a biography that went on for some fifteen additional years in its original editon; and yet, it makes sense when read in tandem with the book’s lengthy prologue, to date the most definitive recounting of Prince’s final year. All of the things Prince was grappling with in late 1988–his conflicts between the spiritual and the carnal, his clashing, oft-frustrated desires for both commercial success and artistic respect, and most importantly, his inability to connect intimately with others–would continue to define his life until his tragic death early last year: alone in Paisley Park, the vast recording facility and living space where his ashes are now permanently enshrined, like a pharaoh in a pyramid of his own design. Reading these later chapters, knowing how the story ends, was a poignant and deeply moving experience. And while I would have gladly read another 300 pages covering 1989-2016, I can’t fault Hahn and Tiebert for ending the story where they did. For better or worse, Prince’s emotional arc was complete.

So, yes, The Rise of Prince is now my official recommendation for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” It might not always be that way: the latter decades of Prince’s life are an important part of the story, and one yet to be fully captured in writing. But for now, less than a year after the artist’s untimely passing, it’s hard to imagine a much better book to explain who Prince was–the good and the bad–and why, for almost a decade, he mattered more than any other singer, songwriter, musician, or producer on the planet. Again, like I said last month: there will be a lot of books published about Prince in the weeks, months, and years to come. Let’s hope more are as carefully considered and lovingly crafted as The Rise of Prince than are not.

You can purchase The Rise of Prince on Amazon, as either a Kindle e-book or a physical paperback.

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Filed under book reviews, Prince

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

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Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

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Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

A Few Words on Public Enemy, 30 Black History Months In

It’s almost too fitting that the anniversary of Public Enemy’s debut album should fall during Black History Month. For people like me–’90s kids from majority-white towns where “Black History” meant half a class period on George Washington Carver every February–Public Enemy was our connection to an invisible history of Black radical thought: from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Their music opened me up to ideas I didn’t even know existed; ideas that, in the wilderness of White (supremacist) America, were truly life-altering. Discovering P.E. as a teenager was an experience as radicalizing as discovering punk rock; more so, in fact, because they represented a threat to racial hegemony that even the likes of the Clash did not. They were insurrection in musical form, with a visceral cut-and-paste aesthetic that continues to sound cutting-edge to this day.

None of that, of course, was the point of Public Enemy. More than any other rap group of their era, P.E. was music by and for Black people; the radicalized white kids like me were collateral damage. But I can only speak from my experience, as someone for whom Fear of a Black Planet and, especially, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were an introduction to an entirely new kind of politics, a new way of seeing the world. If nothing else, I have Public Enemy to thank for introducing me to a rich canon of African American literature and art: to Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and for that matter to James Brown, John Coltrane, and Gil Scott-Heron. Without that initial spark of interest I felt the first time I heard “Bring the Noise,” I might have missed out on a whole universe of ideas that have made me a definitively better person.

Granted, not everything about the group has aged well. Public Enemy may have exposed millions of listeners like myself to Black Power and the Panthers, but they also regurgitated a lot of less progressive influences: the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Louis Farrakhan, most famously, along with a host of conspiracy theories and pseudo-history that contemporary listeners are likely to file away as Hotep bullshit. Their politics are more akin to a firebrand anarchist zine than a well-reasoned essay–which is probably why they appealed more to my teenage self than they do to me as an adult. But there will always be a place for firebrands, and P.E. were as incendiary as they came: it was what made us sit up and listen in the first place. And in early 2017–a time when racism in America is arguably the worst it’s been in my lifetime–their fire might just be needed more than ever.

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Filed under 1980's, 1987, 1988, conscious rap, James Brown, John Coltrane, Malcolm X, Public Enemy, rap

Looking Back at Public Enemy’s Underrated New Whirl Odor

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Next Friday marks the 30th anniversary of Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the debut album by legendary political hip-hop crew Public Enemy. I have a post planned for both Andresmusictalk and my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, to mark the occasion; but in the meantime, I thought I’d dig up a post I wrote back in 2005 about their surprisingly good album from that year, New Whirl Odor. As I note below, 2005 was at least 10 years past what anyone would consider P.E.’s “prime”; but the fact that it still turned out to be pretty great is a testament to their continued vitality and relevance. Here’s hoping they can continue to surprise us in the next 30 years.

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D is 56 years old. That’s only two years younger than my father… my father, whose favorite band is the Traveling Wilburys. This, of course, brings up all the usual questions about relevance and staying power: questions that are perhaps even more potent when applied to a rap group who made their reputation as a thoroughly of-the-moment firebrand “CNN of the black community.” But listening to New Whirl Odor–Public Enemy’s ninth album in their almost-30-year career–and reading some of the early press reactions, I’m a lot more interested in a different question: namely, when are we going to stop demanding another Nation of Millions from Public Enemy?

After all, it’s more than evident that Chuck and company couldn’t care less about recapturing their “golden era”: if Odor is stuck in any time period, it isn’t the late ’80s or even the early ’90s, but 1994, the year PE released their hugely misunderstood fifth album, Muse Sick-N-Our Mess Age. From the punning title and hand-drawn cover art to the Bomb Squad-free, live-instrumentation arrangements, Odor is a sister album of sorts to Muse Sick–and a worthy follow-up at that. But just like that earlier album, it’s unlikely that anyone will be listening until years down the line. Put simply, this was–and remains–a different group altogether from the one that recorded “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” The sound is mellower, atmospheric, almost minimalist; nothing like the dense sonic barrage that peaked on 1990′s Fear of a Black Planet. There’s nothing here with quite the instantaneous impact of, say, “You’re Gonna Get Yours.” In fact, unlike that seminal 1987 cut, which literally revved to life in a blur of gunning engine and squealing tires, New Whirl Odor’s title track drops in with an insistent, low-in-the-mix beat and almost subliminal swirling keyboards. Is it classic P.E.? Hardly; no song operating on wordplay that terrible ought to be considered “classic” anything. But excitement? Is any Public Enemy track not exciting?

 

What follows, I’m happy to say, is even better. “Bring That Beat Back” is the kind of thing the S1Ws were born to step to: the sound of mainstream hip-hop being marched to the gallows. “Preachin’ to the Quiet” blends live guitar with a laid-back jazz-funk loop and some truly frenetic scratching. And “MKLVFKWR” just plain kicks ass, as musically engaging as “Welcome to the Terrordome” with none of the overly defensive, anti-Semitic bravado. The Enemy is in fine form throughout: Chuck’s voice is as hefty of timbre as ever, but delivered with a restraint that becomes him, high on confidence and only a little lower on boom. Even Professor Griff takes the mic to great effect on tracks like the ambient, reggae-flavored “Revolution” and the tense, jerky “Y’all Don’t Know.” Flav, perhaps for the best, is kept largely out of the spotlight, but provides color and support with his usual panache.

Of course there are a few missteps. “66.6 Strikes Again” needlessly rehashes the cut-and-paste radio skit of Black Planet with diminishing returns, while the abysmal “What a Fool Believes” is not only the worst Public Enemy song I’ve ever heard, but one of the worst rap songs–and probably up there on the list of worst songs in general. Harsh words, I know, but to Public Enemy’s credit, New Whirl Odor’s highs far outnumber its lows… and even the lows speak to this group’s continuing vitality, their willingness to take risks. Closing track “Superman is Black in the Building” (above) stands as a testament to this: nearly twelve minutes long and not a second wasted, it’s at once an epic recap of everything that continues to make Public Enemy great, and a bold excursion into new heights of jazz-flavored funk and soul. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think twice about writing off these hip-hop elder statesmen, even if their “glory days” have long past. Because like it or not, Public Enemy doesn’t need to make another Nation of Millions. They’ve already made their first New Whirl Odor, and that’s plenty good enough.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Chuck D, conscious rap, Hip-Hop, Public Enemy, rap, Uncategorized

A Plug for a New Prince Book: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

rise-of-prince

I don’t normally do this kind of thing–which is to say, normally if I’m going to promote a project using my tiny social media platform, it’s damn sure going to be one of my own–but since Andre has written about Prince biographies on this site before, I thought his readers might be interested in hearing about an upcoming project from a respected author in the genre. Alex Hahn’s 2003 book Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince was the first Prince biography I ever read, and it still holds up as an excellent, narrative-focused, warts-and-all retelling of the first 25 years of the artist’s career. So you can imagine my excitement to report that a month from today, Hahn and co-author Laura Tiebert are releasing a followup, titled The Rise of Prince 1958-1988. According to the authors, this book is not a revision of Possessed, but a drastic overhaul, with original research that should shed new light on Prince’s early years in particular. Pre-order links are already up on Amazon for both paperback and Kindle versions–the latter of which is only $8.99! And, if you, like me, are motivated by narcissism, Alex has announced on the book’s Facebook group that anyone who preorders the book before February 13th gets their name in the acknowledgements: just send an email by that date to theriseofprince@gmail.com.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Now, because I would like my weekly Andresmusictalk post to be more than a one-paragraph shill (my shills are four paragraphs minimum), let me just say why I’m supporting this project. First, as I already noted, Possessed was an excellent, even-handed book on the Purple One, and The Rise of Prince stands to benefit from an additional 13 years of perspective–not to mention that one, huge dose of perspective we all got when Prince passed away last April. As a fan of the original, I’d love to see how Hahn’s point of view has evolved since its publication, and how the addition of a co-author might influence it.

But I also have ulterior motives. As some readers are already aware, one of my several (arguably too many) personal projects is dance / music / sex / romance, a blog discussing each of the songs of Prince in chronological order. So, when I see another independently-published work of Prince “scholarship” enter the market, it obviously makes sense that I want it to do well: the success of a book like The Rise of Prince is, in a way, my success. If nothing else, it will be another vital source to add to my own site’s ever-growing bibliography.

Less selfishly, there’s also this: with interest in Prince still at a high point in the wake of his death, there are going to be a lot of books entering the market; some released with the best intentions, others inevitably less so. And I think it’s beholden on those of us with an interest in Prince’s legacy to support the ones with the good intentions. So, after The Rise of Prince is released and I’ve had time to read it, you can expect to see a post detailing my thoughts on the finished product; the same goes for the handful of other upcoming projects I have my eye on. My hope is that in the years to come, we’ll see a renaissance in quality, nuanced writing on Prince; certainly, if any artist of his generation deserves such a legacy, it’s him.

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Filed under biographies, Prince

The Continuing Resonance of “Mississippi Goddam”

For reasons that should be obvious–and sort of rhyme with the words “Dump Conflagration”–I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about protest music. And surprisingly, one of the songs that feels most relevant to our current (terrible) political situation is one that was written over 50 years ago, about a different (and even more terrible) political situation: Nina Simone‘s “Mississippi Goddam.”

It’s a testament to Simone’s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.

My favorite version of the song, for example, comes from April 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event, Simone tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” As historically specific as the performance remains, its sense of hopelessness leapt out at me across the decades when I listened to it again this week. It’s hard not to detect a little of our present situation in the lines where Simone rages against the admonitions of moderate white liberals: “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying ‘Go slow!'”

mississippi_goddamBut if the rage Simone felt in 1964 and 1968 still feels relevant to 2017, then so, too, does the galvanizing purpose behind the song–which is the real reason why I found myself listening to it so much this week. “Mississippi Goddam” is about the terrible things that happen to marginalized people, but it’s also about standing up and demanding justice for those terrible things: not later, but now. Yesterday and today, reports of anti-inauguration protests, counter-events, and of course the Women’s March on Washington were the only things in the world that felt right, that made any sense at all. And, while I don’t know if the legendarily acerbic Ms. Simone would have been part of the Women’s March–though I will go out on a limb and say she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing no damn pussy hat–I do think she would have approved of the many people taking to the streets. It’s going to be a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years); but if we keep fighting like what I saw this weekend, I think we might be all right.

(This post is an expanded version of a blurb I wrote for my own blog. Come read my thoughts about 15 other songs of dissent on Dystopian Dance Party.)

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Filed under 1960's, civil rights, Donald Trump, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, political songs, protest songs

Bitches Broth: Betty Davis, The Columbia Years, 1968-69

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Betty Davis is, as her ex-husband Miles would undoubtedly have put it, a bad bitch. Her trio of mid-1970s albums–including 1974’s They Say I’m Different, which Andre posted about last summer–constitute some of the rawest, nastiest funk-rock ever released. Imagine prime Tina Turner, but with a heavier rock influence; and what she lacks in vocal prowess, she makes up for with a persona so aggressive, you’d swear she was the one beating up on Ike. If you’re even the slightest fan of powerful women and/or heavy funk, then you need to hear Betty Davis.

That being said, my recommendation for the latest release of Betty Davis’ music, The Columbia Years, 1968-69, is a little more conditional. I received the compilation’s (gorgeous!) vinyl release for Christmas last month, and I love it; it sits proudly on my shelf even as we speak. But I can also understand why it wasn’t officially released until last year.

Comprised of two sessions recorded for Columbia Records in 1968 and 1969–the first produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document. For fans of the more famous Davis, it’s effectively ground zero for jazz fusion: the moment Miles hooked up with the circle of acid rockers and funkateers in Betty’s orbit, including Jimi Hendrix sidemen Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Without Betty, there would be no Bitches Brew (in more ways than one–that album’s title is said to have referred to Betty and her entourage of countercultural socialities). According to the compilation’s liner notes, Betty’s come-hither purr in her cover of Cream’s “Politician” even ended up inspiring Miles’ song “Back Seat Betty,” a full 12 years after the couple split.

But just as Betty was never “Mrs. Miles Davis,” The Columbia Years is also of interest for reasons beyond its significance in Miles’ body of work. You can hear the seeds of Betty’s own unique stylistic hybrid being planted, as she tries her hand at a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” heavily indebted to “Stone Free” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; or even her own composition “Hangin’ Out,” which comes across as a tamer version of later party-girl anthems like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” For existing devotees, the opportunity to hear her earth-shaking style in embryonic form is priceless.

For newcomers, though, I’m afraid the appeal will be significantly lessened. The fact is, in 1969 Betty Davis didn’t really sound like Betty Davis yet; her vocals are thin, and she hadn’t yet developed the hellion’s rasp that made her voice on later records so distinctive. And, while the personnel on the sessions is impressive–not only Cox and Mitchell, but also John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others–the arrangements lack grit and verve; they have the slightly patronizing feel that comes with the territory of crack jazz musicians slumming in “lesser” genres. It’s telling that Davis’ best music would be recorded with players who were funk and rock musicians first: her 1973 debut, for example, featured Santana‘s Neal Schon, Larry Graham, and other members of Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. It’s also telling that her music got better the more she was at the helm: her second and third albums, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, were both self-produced.

So, yes, everyone should listen to Betty Davis; and, since to know Betty Davis is to love her, then sure, eventually everyone should probably listen to The Columbia Years. But if you’re just getting started, don’t start at the beginning. Check out Betty DavisThey Say I’m Different, or Nasty Gal; hell, check out her canned 1976 album Crashin’ from Passion, later reissued as Is It Love or Desire? Then, circle back to The Columbia Years and see how it all began. With records like this being released and a new documentary set to premiere this summer, the time has arguably never been riper to rediscover Betty Davis. I can attest that she’s a discovery well worth making.

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Filed under 1960's, Betty Davis, Columbia Records, funk rock, Graham Central Station, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Graham, Miles Davis, Music Reviewing, Sly & The Family Stone, Wayne Shorter