There are certain songwriting and producing jobs in music that just stand out above all others if you’re a fan of music. One of them, that will.i.am was able to achieve for my side of todays “Anatomy of THE Groove” figure, was writing and producing a song for Earth, Wind & Fire’s 2005 album “Illumination, called “Lovely People.” It was not the first comeback I’d witnessed from EWF, a group who’s peak was right before I was born yet who’s music was an essential part of my upbringing. 1987 and ’88 were one of my favorite times ever in my young life for music. EWF had a great album called “Touch The World” at that time with a fantastic electro funk single called “System of Survival”, one of my favorite songs ever. But while “System of Survival” employed a treacherous electro funk beat put together by a writer/producer named Skylark, that contained a dope and classic EWF lyrical story, the beat was a whole other edge of the 21st Century thing. on “Lovely People” will.i.am takes the classic EWF joyful funk Afro-Diasporic dance sound and edits it for modern sensibilities. The results are a reinvigorated EWF, soudning as if they continued as a group with Maurice White from the end of their run to the present day. Mainly, it’s a song with that true Earth, Wind & Fire message of joy, love and blessings.
Right off the bat, the Kalimba sounds along with harmonizing let us know it’s EWF. The track begins with snippets of Kalimba, electronically processed and running in reverse, backed by what sounds like vocals from the song running in reverse. The sound of the Kalimba and the obscured vocals immediately put one in that EWF “Pyramid” frame of mind, like some of their mystical concert entrances and exits. The next thing in the arrangement is another band signifier, the horn section playing a magisterial ascending riff. And just like that, we’re back in the zone of the elements of Earth, Wind & Fire!
A thunderous groove kicks off, a real rollicking, rolling Native American sounding groove, remeniscent of the types of drum beats Maurice White’s fellow Memphis native Al Jackson Jr would play behind Al Green, and that Syliva Robinson copped on her classic, “Pillow Talk.” The guitar plays very short, clipped chords, and Verdine White slides down his bass. The feeling is that of a tremendous groove motor beginning to rev up, as will.i.am plays the party M.C.
After that intro, the horn phrase announces the beginning of the chorus section. The verse drops right there at the top of the song, “To all of my Lovely People/step to the floor and disco.” The phrase “Lovely People” is one that caught my attention when the song first dropped. What struck me is that it was such an EWF, Maurice White phrase, full of optimisim and love for humanity. It impressed me that an outside writer such as will.i.am could come up with that with the group in mind! The vocals are backed by a lively Afro-Carribean dance funk groove. In addition to EWF’s obvious and classic Brazillian stylings, they were also a master of integrating other grooves from the African diaspora. They had the greasy grooves of Memphis and the transplanted blues, soul and gospel of Chicago deep in their musical DNA. The cool of California lent a shiny sheen to their recordings. But also in the mix, was the sound of the festivals of the Carribean, found on such EWF classics as “As Love Goes On”, which was itself recorded in the Carribean.
The Afro-Carib groove features lively rhythmic guitar strumming with the classic high EWF guitar tone, innovated and promulgated by Al McKay, Johnny Graham and Roland Bautista. will.i.am’s vocals in the mix with the bands helps provide the Carribean element as well.The verse groove is definitely influenced by the more spare modern hip hop/R&B approach, with the guitar playing a busy rhythm, horn stabs in and out, and Verdine White’s bass only providing occasional funky accents. All in all its a model of economy of groove. As the “Lovely People” verse ends, the next section features classic worldess EWF harmonizing around the solfeggate of “La”, with “Lovely People” being sung by Phillip Bailey. Verdine White is also allowed more room to stretch out on bass on that section.
Around 1:45 in, the band hits a nice EWF musical interlude, with will playing MC over the lively beat and harmonizing. After that he comes in with a rap, not too much, just lyrics with the intention of moving the party on. That is followed by a lively horn riff that supports some vocalinzing from will. The song has a long groove fade out with another EWF signifier, an actual Kalimba solo!
Songs like this always fascinate me. I was always interested in how to bring the classic funk sound into the here and now. Not by sampling it, but by a more subtle process of incorporating elements, including some and exvluding others. “Lovely People” features the Kalimba, an Afro Carribean rhythm, harmonizing, the horn section, and many other elements of EWF’s classic sound. It also has a lyric, that while not dealing with any heavy topic of inspiration, still manages to inspire through its positivity matched with an uplifting groove. will.i.am accomplished what any modern musician would want to, updating his influences sound to what it would sound like TODAY. It’s almost like a father figure or uncle wanting you to help them pick out some modern clothes, and you show them pictures of themsevles when they were younger and then go into their closets and pick out some things they already have. Then you might add a touch or two from your closet to top it off. The results here were a fresh look that still said “Earth, Wind & Fire”, rather than the band simply trying to look fresh.