Michael Jackson’s passing is still being felt seven years on. With him not being with us anymore,its getting easier to see beyond the idolatry (which both helped and hindered him) to the essence of his musical and performance artistry. This artistry was very much defined by MJ’s performance ability. This included his distinctive variety of rangy vocal hiccup. And it was also defined by his aggressive,brittle mixture of Broadway show dancing and the James Brown moves with which he began on as a child at Motown. By the early 1990’s,Jackson’s persona was becoming more defined by his personal eccentricities.
Now this brings MJ up to his fourth post Motown solo album Dangerous. Quincy Jones was jettisoned as a producer,for among other reasons that Jackson wanted to update his sound in a different ways than perhaps Quincy did. One of the biggest success in the soul/funk world in the late 80’s/early 90’s was Teddy Riley. He’d helped pioneer the new jack swing variant of danceable funk music. Jackson was recording this fourth album during this time,and enlisted Riley to help out. Teddy Riley would up producing seven songs on the album,including the first six. My personal favorite of which is “She Drives Me Wild”.
Traffic sounds begin the song. Then a car horn effect playing an actual horn chart introduces the refrain. The refrain consists of a shuffling uptempo new jack drum machine,with each second beat seemingly played backwards. Synthesized MIDI effects are used to create digitized sounds of bells,clocks,more car horns,the sound of walking along with other effects one would expect to hear on the urban street in mid day. On the chorus,the growling vocals of Jacksons throughout the song return to his whispery falsetto as the drums and keyboards play it straighter. Its on such a note that the song fades out.
Personally,I tend to see new jack swing as being (which was also the case with some types of disco) as having potential to be somewhat cookie cutter and generic. In the hands of talents such as Teddy Riley and Michael Jackson,that brought out the very best the genre had to offer. These industrial electronics on this song sound much like an early 90’s extension of James Brown’s concept: turning digital MIDI sound effects and synthesizer layers into a drum. Wreckz-N-Effects perform an equally rhythm rap that appears on the instrumental bridge of the song
Henrique Hopkins and myself have had many discussions about how,while a strong album on a musical level,1987’s Bad album wasn’t particularly innovative for its time. Susan Fast discussed in her excellent 33 1/3 volume on Dangerous that this was an album that actually found MJ very much on the cutting edge musically-along with keeping his strong sense of pop craft and funky dancibility. Listening to it today, its not an album that’s short on exciting and strong songs-especially the uptempo material. But this song really goes to another level for me.
Filed under 1990s, dancing, Dangerous, drum machines, Industrial funk, James Brown, Michael Jackson, MIDI, New Jack Swing, synthesizers, Teddy Riley, Wreckz-N-Effects
Shalamar are the vocal group Soul Train created. And the more I get into their music,the more I realize its potency. The band were the youthful embodiment of the post disco/boogie sound of the late 70’s to mid 80’s. It was also the springboard for the solo careers of the rangy singer Howard Hewett and the ultra funkified Jody Watley. One of the key members in terms of their performance ethic was guitarist,songwriter and above all choreographer Jeffrey Daniels. He’d been a partner dancer with Watley on the Soul Train line during the shows salad mid 70’s era. By the early 80’s,he was an unsung icon.
The reason I view Daniels as an icon today is because he showed Michael Jackson the dance move that made MJ’s career. Originally referred to as the back step,it became more popularly known as the Moonwalk-originally the name for the dance done in a complete circle. Daniels eventually helped choreograph the music videos for “Beat It” and others. On his own,Daniels ended up living between Osaka Japan and Nigeria,the latter of which he’s a judge on the local Idol program. His biggest creative input for Shalamar was on their 1981 album Go For It. In particular its closing jam “Rocker”.
Crowd sounds regarding band producer Leon Sylvers begin the song,continuing throughout. First the stomping,percussive funky drum kicks in. Then the thick,chord heavy slap bass kicks in before an open wah wah guitar kicks into the similarly themed refrain during the drum break. That refrain adds multiple keyboard and synth brass into the same brew with Daniels’ leading backup vocals. Towards the end of the song,the synth brass takes a strong and sustained presence over the main groove and crowd sounds. The lead vocals return as the song fades out.
“Rocker” has a rather different flavor than most uptempo Shalamar jams. Most of them were more lead/harmony vocal based in terms of the groove. Everything on this number is built around percussive drum breaks and slap bass solos. It was composed and sung primarily by Daniels himself. With its stripped down rhythms and atmospherics,this is the perfect type of funk for popping,locking or just about any type of 70’s era funk dancing Daniels was continuing to innovate during the videocentric early 80’s. On a purely musical end,its also some of Shalamar’s heaviest straight up funk.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, dancing, drums, Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Daniels, Jody Watley, moonwalk, post disco, Shalamar, slap bass, Soul Train, synth brass, wah wah
For the sake of the serious musicians and even serious funk/soul/jazz devotees? The fact that R.Kelly bought in 80’s era George Benson guitar understudy Bobby Broom to play on his 1993 solo debut 12 Play speaks volumes about the breadth of Kelly’s musical vision and talent. Though always acknowledging the man as a top notch composer? It was my blogging partner here,Rique,who hipped me to explore deeper into the joyous grooves of R. Kelly’s more recent work. One that stood out strongly in my mind was the title song from Kelly’s 2004 album entitled Happy People. Again,it has a way of projected two simple words that speak volumes more as well.
Beginning with a scratchy vinyl from Kelly’s MC,DJ Wayne Williams a spirited gospel/soul piano ushers in the song which Kelly himself announces as being “another one for the steppers”. Following this a scaling,high up on the neck Southern Soul guitar and horn fan fare starts up a slow paced funky soul groove. The rhythm is very similar to that slow Afro Latin type percussion that provided an important link between both the grooving Philly ballads of Thom Bell,the slow grooving sophisticated Southern Soul of Willie Mitchell’s Hi studio sound and the hardcore funk coming out of the early/mid 1970’s. Which in turn marked the beginning of the disco era.
The melodicism of the song also comes from a number of different places. There’s a clear,crisp and wavering high synthesizer line-as well an adjunct of the high on the neck Southern Soul guitar from the intro of the song. There’s also slap bass accents which provide the deeper end of this melody,as well as being rhythmically supportive as it is by nature in funky music. There’s also an string (or at least string type) orchestra that introduces the vocal chorus-before the bridge where Kelly directs the stepping dance affair he’s singing about to mainly the percussive beat,one keyboard line and that slap bass. All before returning back to the full arrangement as it closes out.
Considering R.Kelly came out of the more vocal and performance oriented soul/R&B attitude of the early 1990’s? He had by the turn of the millennium evolved into an artist who appreciated the art of melodic arrangement and the rhythmic process in his music. Even if he was often more in the position of utilizing the more hip-hop techniques of turntablists and samples to do so. He knows how to make modern musical methods and technology present a soulfully organic groove. And more over? He understands the art producing this down to a rich,creamy sheen.
In terms of concept,R.Kelly injects a huge amount of musical history into this one song. Vocally he’s evoking the smokey falsetto coos and calls of both Ron Isley and Al Green. He also utilizes the rich,gospel vibrato that was actually a carry over from Stevie Wonder’s enormous impact on the stereotypical new jack swing era male vocalist of Kelly’s generation as well. The fact that Kelly is able to project everything with great vocal clarity also adds to this. Everything from vocal soul to the melodic end of funk is strongly referenced by all of this. And it plays strongly to the basic lyrical content of the song as well.
The music video presents a soulful,cool and funky dance party in an ornate golden cathedral-covered in Renaissance art yet also featuring a live band and horn section. As well as a crowd dressed in funky urban hats,suits and dresses-many literally stepping in time. Stepping,which to me seems to be an extension on the hustle and the electric slide,is referenced along with the warm lyrical content of this song. It basically asks the listener to relieve their stresses by taking enjoyment in an elegant party atmosphere and dancing to the rhythm of the music in their life. It’s the basic link in that chain of the blues,jazz,soul up through today. And this is one of those songs that just puts it all together so well.