Category Archives: message songs

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Am I Black Enough For You” by Billy Paul

Billy Paul is another of far,far too many music icons of the 20th century who passed away during 2016. The Philly native grew up listening to jazz based singers such as Nina Simone,Carmen McCrae and Billie Holiday. After a stint in the army,where he was was stationed in post WWII Germany in the late 50’s along with Elvis Presley. Using this as an opportunity to further his love of music,he launched a jazz trio while in Germany. After getting out of the army,he became part of the burgeoning Philadelphia International Records,eventually releasing his debut album in 1970.

As with most people in America,my primary knowledge of this artist was via the ballad “Me & Mrs. Jones”. My father purchased a compilation of Billy Paul’s music. And after that,it became clear that this man did some amazingly cinematic uptempo tunes. Many of them with a very strong pro black sociopolitical bent lyrically. It was about a year ago when watching a documentary about Oakland’s Black Panthers that I heard a very funkified song with a very familiar voice. Turns out that voice belonged to the late Billy Paul. And the song (from 1972) was called “Am I Black Enough For You”.

A bluesy Clavinet riff dovetails into the percussive accented funky march of the drums. That Clavinet maintains itself throughout the song. At first,this is assisted by a bluesy rhythm guitar. The song has a rather elaborate,jazzy bass line holding the rhythm section together. The horns are both melodic and climactic-scaling upward on each of the songs choruses. Towards the end of the song,a fuzzed out guitar plays an eerie sustain in the back round as the percussion and a bluesy organ and guitar take over on the bridge. Then the songs main chorus takes over until it all fades out

“Am I Black Enough For You” is a psychedelic,bluesy funk number musically. One featuring a dense,thick instrumental sound. The melody is very overtly blues based too. Lyrically,the song speaks as much to the present day as it did for 1972. In both cases,an unpopular and widely disliked politician had become president. And anti black attitudes were a causal factor in both cases. This song lyrically suggests that strength in numbers will help black Americans to have power and dignity of person. And with Billy Paul no longer with us,that’s as fine a musical concept for him to heave us with as any.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, Billy Paul, blues funk, civil rights, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, fuzz guitar, horns, message songs, organ, percussion, Philadelphia, Philadelphia International Records, Philly Soul, pro black, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar

If You Don’t Vote,You Don’t Count-A Message From Andre’ Cymone.

America is,as if today,about to come upon the most critical presidential election I’ve personally lived through. The frightening presence of Donald Trump as a candidate as raised many uncomfortable questions about what sort of people Americans are. 2016 is also a year that saw the death of Prince. His close childhood friend and lyrical inspiration Andre’ Cymone wrote this rockabilly style number a few years ago encouraging people to vote. For today,I’ll just post this video above with its lyrics printed below. All in hopes you,the reader,will be encouraged to exercise your most important American right tomorrow.

Vote to make a difference…If you don’t vote, you don’t count…
lyrics

VOTE

I come from a neighborhood
They won’t spend
No money to make it shine
The rich
With all the power
Buy off politicians
And leave the common folk behind
That’s why you gotta

Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote, you don’t count
Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote
Then you can’t complain

I, I need an answer
Why is it so hard
To treat the people right
The populations changin
All across our nation
And we don’t need no guns
To be the winner in this fight
That’s why you got to

Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote, you don’t count
Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote
Then you can’t complain

Let me ask you a question
Which party started a 12 year war
Here’s another question
Who always opens the window
While the other one closes the door

Last vote
We got Obama
But he can’t pass
These laws all by himself
He needs a team
Who understands all our needs
And won’t let corporations
Put our dreams up on a shelf
That’s why you got to

Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote, baby you don’t count
Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote
Then you can’t complain

Man what you mean
You ain’t gon vote… man
Don’t you realize that’s how they win….Who’s they?
They’s the corporations, The rich, the ones that don’t wanna
See the average person make the same kinda money so they can quit workin for them.
You seen what happened in Ferguson, they didn’t vote, five per cent turn out, no you gotta do better than that, you wanna see representation that looks like you , feels like you, does the things that you wanna see done in your future… You gotta get out there and vote.
If you don’t vote, you don’t count.

The time is now
To take control of your life
Too many people died
For us to win that right

Ain’t nothin cool
About sittin elections out
You wanna save this world
Sign up and join the fight

Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote, baby you don’t count
Vote, make a difference
You don’t vote
Then you can’t complain

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016, America, Andre Cymone, Donald Trump, message music, message songs, political songs, presidential elections, progressive music, voting

Controversy@35: Funk For Those Who Don’t Want To Die So They Can Be Free

Controversy

Controversy,released on this day in 1981,is one of my very favorite albums of Prince’s immediate pre-crossover period. It came along at a time when he was heavily building his musical persona. Everything from his stripped down instrumental approach,the name Jamie Starr and around this period the introduction of The Time. First time I saw the album on vinyl,it was the basic Prince image I saw on the cover staring hard at me in front of some captivating faux newspaper headlines. The purple trench coat with the studded shoulder and his Little Richard inspired hairstyle were there-as well as the thin mustache.

Picked the album up on vinyl upon seeing this from Dr. Records,in its old location in Orono Maine.  Happily it still had the original poster inside showing Prince posing in the shower, wearing nothing but black bikini underwear.  Its also important to note I heard Prince’s albums almost in order,so heard this fourth in that line. The title track in its full version really got my attention. Especially where Prince is reciting the lords prayer over the pumping rhythm and funkified rhythm guitar before his chant at the end. My boyfriend told me this was the very first Prince song he heard while living Scranton,Pennsylvania.

That chant at the end of course was “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules”. The albums major funky moments come in the slap bass and synth brass groove of “Lets Work”,one of his finest slices of funk of that time. He also provides one of his major funk ballads in the elongated workout of “Do Me,Baby”-written by Andre Cymone and featuring some lustful vocals and slap bass. “Sexuality” ably mixes a rockabilly rhythm and melody,chicken scratch guitar and new wave synthesizers. Lyrically it also provides a bit of the albums social manifesto.

“Private Joy” is a sleek post disco new wave pop number build around drums and synthesizers-plus a peppy,sexy falsetto chorus. “Ronnie Talk To Russia” is a short,punky new wave number with a rather narcissistic anti nuclear message asking the president to talk to Russia “before they blow up my world”. “Annie Christian” is a striking art rock type number metaphorically dealing with the issues of violence and gun control in the early 80’s. The album ends with sexually playful “Jack U Off”,which is a straight up synthesized version of 50’s rockabilly.

Musically speaking,this album really finds Prince solidifying his sound. The musical pallet is similar to its predecessor Dirty Mind. Production wise however,Controversy is a pretty slick sounding album that doesn’t have the previous albums raw demo like quality. The album also integrates funkiness into its instrumental approach. Many times in the general rhythm of the songs,a lot of them still fall into the retro 50’s rock n’ roll/rockabilly style Prince was dealing with at this time. At the same time,he showcased how R&B,funk and modern synth pop/new wave would represent a major part of the Minneapolis sound.

Conceptually this album is one of his most telling. The Prince of Controversy emerged as a concerned,conscious citizen who also had a mildly unknowing,socially conservative streak. A lot of it is Prince walking the classic soul music line between the secular and the spiritual. In one song alone for example he’s saying “sexuality is all we’ll ever need” and turns around to say “don’t let your children watch television until they learn how to read/or all they’ll know how to do is cuss,fight and breed”.  This mix of sexual freedom and social paranoia is a close early glimpse of Prince’s then developing social conscience.

Prince of course is no longer with us. And with a released catalog almost 40 albums strong in his lifetime,he’s told many different stories both musically and lyrically. My friend Henrique warned me not to try to chase Prince’s motivations because of how intentionally elusive the artist tended to be. For me,this album is probably the closest he came in the 1980’s to laying his soul bare. His feelings on sex,violence and religion are something he’s trying to reconcile throughout this album. Don’t know if he ever did fully reconcile them before he died. But the questions he asked here may be more important than the answers.

1 Comment

Filed under 1980's, ballads, classic albums, Controversy, gun control, message songs, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, naked funk, New Wave, Prince, rhythm guitar, rock 'n' roll, slap bass, synth brass, synth funk

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Junie” by Solange

Solange Knowles turned 30 this year. The period since her last release in the EP True and today has been a long and significant one. In 2013,she moved to New Orleans with her then 8 year old son Daniel. The Crescent City has long been known as a spiritual home for black American culture-starting with the birth of jazz in the city over a century and a half ago.  A year later,she re-married music video directer Alan Furguson while living there. Considering she views her sister (and frequent public comparison) Beyonce as a prime role model for her,its no surprise she is taking a similar outlook on America today.

The America that Solange has been looking at the last couple of years has been an all out yet not officially spoken assault on African American’s. Its seen the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. As well as an accompanying upsurge in understanding how how truly bigoted the fundamentals of America are-in no small thanks to the internet’s vast library of historical knowledge. Police brutality is at an all time high. And the black community has had a wide range of reactions. Some have even chosen to deny their heritage and defend a police force they know to be in the wrong.

Musically the consequences have been unusual. Even the usually topical genre of hip-hop,let along soul,have avoided message songs to a big degree. Instead favoring variants of the modern trap sound. Solange,along with her sister’s song “Formation” have elected to address this more. For her own part,Solange addressed it with a brand new album (now available as a digital file only) entitled A Seat At The Table. Its definitely a return to the album based format of the 1970’s conceptually. But if there were only one standout song I had to pick as a favorite from it,it would be the song “Junie”.

The song begins with a six note bass line with a hard cymbal kick over which Solange improvises along vocally. Then the drums kick into a heavy snare/hi hat rhythm. Within the framework,a higher and lower pitch brittle space funk synthesizer play call and response within the refrain along with Solange’s rhythmic singing. On the choruses,a think three note piano walk down is added to the synthesizer parts-which become melodically brighter and more insistent. The song reduces down to a synthesizer bleep/drum duet before stopping on yet another repeat of the chorus.

It was Henrique who suspected,and made it official based on Solange’s own tweet, that this song was indeed named for and inspired by Walter “Junie” Morrison,synthesizer innovator of first the Ohio Player and then P-Funk. That makes perfect sense with the use of the gospel/soul piano and spacey synthesizer lines that would be the classic Junie mix of sound. While its played a lot straighter here than on P-Funk’s more flamboyant instrumental style by Mister John Kirby,it goes perfectly with the stripped down musical composition written by Raaphael Saadiq.

Lyrically,OutKast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin provided two areas of insights in the song. Most of it is very much in the dance hall of much Jamaican inspired contemporary dance/R&B. One where words are stuttered rhythmically to generate an impulse.  Towards the end of the song,the lyrics are more overt. “Don’t want to do the dishes/just want to eat the food” is one such lyric. As does its accompanying album,it finds Solange, Andre, Raaphael and John sending out a vital message that,when it comes to racial justice and music itself,heavy creative inspiration and work is the only effective way to go.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016, A Seat At The Table, Andre 3000, drums, Funk Bass, John Kirby, message songs, naked funk, new music, piano, Raaphael Saadiq, space funk, synthesizers, Walter Junie Morrison

Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway was one of the earliest musical figures I remember hearing by name. Though at that time,it was seven years late to the party that was his musical life. He committed suicide over a year before I was born-apparently after suffering with paranoid schizophrenia during what would’ve normally been the peak of his career. An alumni of Howard University,the Chicago native first took up with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. He began producing and doing session playing for the likes of Aretha Franklin,the Staple Singers and The Impressions before embarking on a music career of his own.

Hathaway only recorded three studio solo albums in his lifetime. There were also a pair of live albums as well. Another project that Hathaway was involved with was a 1972 film score recorded with Quincy Jones entitled Come Back,Charleston Blue.  The album was brought to my attention by DJ,musician and Donny Hathaway admirer Nigel Hall. He encouraged me to seek the record out. And I finally discovered a vinyl copy online. It sat in my collection until several months ago when I dug it out for a vinyl based segment on this blog. And the song that stood out for me was called “Little Ghetto Boy”.

A funky conga drum shuffle begins the song with Hathaway’s bluesy,heavily reverbed Fender Rhodes piano serves as the intro to the song. As his vocal comes in,so do the climactic string arrangements and the stirring bass line. This essentially provides the choruses of the song-which provides the bed for the vocal narrative. Woodwinds come more into play for the refrains of the song-which lyrically serve to ask rhetorical questions of what was illustrated in the choruses. And its on this extended refrain that the song finally fades itself out.

Donny Hathaway has recorded some of the most amazing soul/funk standards over the years. Among them “Everything Is Everything” and the holiday favorite “This Christmas”. This song,with its Afro-Latin soul jazz shuffle is somewhat reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. Hathaway really set two different modes on this song too. He starts off talking about the title character with low expectations and opportunities. Then asks those ever important questions as to what will become of the “little ghetto boy” in the future. Its one of Hathaway’s finest message songs consequently.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, Chicago, Donny Hathaway, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, funky soul, message songs, percussion, Quincy Jones, Soundtracks, strings, woodwinds

Songs In the Key Of Life@40: Stevie Wonder Living In A Future Paradise

songs-in-the-key-of-life

An artists musical focus isn’t required to match up to their lyrical concepts. And vice versa. Yet when those two creative aspects come together,especially in the hands of a great musical talent,the results can often defy description. One such case is Stevie Wonder. He had matched musical and lyrical concepts beautifully through singles during the 60’s. In the early 70’s,he crossed this ethic into the age of the album. His 1976 release Songs In The Key of Life is the finest example of how Stevie Wonder was innovating AOF-a term I’m coining for album oriented funk.

Songs In The Key of Life was his most long winded productions up to this point. It took him 2 1/2 years to complete this album. With a list of musicians that would take up several paragraphs and his fascination with Yamaha’s polyphonic duel keyboards instrument the GX-1,Stevie Wonder and the group of musicians who recorded this put a lot of blood,sweat and joyful tears into the album. It was likely intended as a triple album set. But was whittled down to a double album plus an EP 45 packed into it. Until this time,the only genre of music  that was really give this lavish presentation was progressive rock.

It was actually the first Stevie Wonder album (not counting radio hits) I’d ever heard. Though only part of it at first. On a dark,balmy night sometime in 1989-90 my mom was at our summer camp washing dishes. We had an old silver Emerson turntable/ cassette/ radio/8-Track player to listen to music on out there. My mom had ordered SITKOL on 8-Track from Columbia House Music Club. It was a double tape set,but she’d given one half of it to her friend Billy Ray while still living in NYC.  It was several years later that I finally heard the entire album on vinyl from my mom and dads record collection.

Songs In The Key Of Life is one of a handful of albums that provided the blueprint to how I listen to music up to this very day. It had some amazing and funky hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. On the other hand,being conceived as a powerful album statement with zero filler material,its an album that contains some songs that are just very special to millions the world over. If asked to mull it over,each of them probably can make a list of those special songs from this album to them. Today,I offer you my own journey through the songs of Wonder’s keys of life that had a profound effect on my own life.


“Have A Talk With God”-I am not a religious man. But the way Stevie Wonder talks about the positive effects prayer and faith have on him makes a deep impact. With its space funk synthesizers,bluesy melody and slow dragging vocals it offers up god as “the only free psychiatrist”-contrasting with the 12 bar blues form’s typical association with secular humanism.

“Pastime Paradise”-This might very well be the most expansive song instrumentally and lyrically to come out of the mid 70’s. The Arabic style melody,Afro Latin percussion,synthesized orchestration and Hare Krishna bells/chants make for an early example of what would one day become world/pop fusion. Which makes sense since the song talks about people with a progressive emotional understanding versus those with a more conservative one. And its place in post hip-hop history is assured  through Coolio’s 1994 remake “Gangsta Paradise”

“Summer Soft”-Stevie Wonder is an artist who is defined by melodic modulation. This song provides a beautiful tone poem in that regard. He discusses the advantages of the season with a wistful mid tempo ballad sung in falsetto. Then he talks about the seasons being gone in his powerful low voice over a powerful,uptempo gospel/funk revelry.

“Ordinary Pain”-Another fine example of modulation. It starts out with a slow ballad about dealing with the ordinary and apparently “necessary pain” coming from the end of a romance. This is a common thread in Wonder’s romantic songs. This song comes to an end,then returns as a hard core,Moog bass driven funk song from a female perspective sung by Wonderlove’s Shirley Brewer.

“I Wish”-With its bouncing Fender Rhodes piano,ARP synthesizer,bass line along with the hot horn charts,this nostalgia based piece of funk is one of Stevie Wonder’s most enduring hit songs.

“Black Man”-Seeing before my eyes the way this song was layered in recording studio on the relatively rare Classic Albums Series DVD documentary on the making of this album only enhanced my appreciation of this brilliant funk opus. The mix of brittle space funk synthesizer layers with equally brittle,electric horns make this history lesson on the many races of people who built America (with a strong black focus) one of Wonder’s finest pieces of funky music.

” Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”-On this song,Wonder presents an Afro Latin type of tango done in his electronically orchestrated style. In the languages of Zulu,Spanish and English he sings of true love coming from the heart. Likely relating to individual romance and love of humanity as well.

“As”-This song is one of Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces on the Fender Rhodes electric piano alone. Essentially a mid tempo jazz-funk ballad,it was interpreted by many key figures in that genre during the late 70’s. One can see why as its among Wonder’s most melodically challenging songs ever. Even though I’ve later read commentary that the lyrics of this song were lazily written,its clear that few can have the same high level of emotional expression in their love songs than Stevie Wonder does on such occasions as this.

“All Day Sucker”-This is a hardcore funk jam taken from the EP that came with this album. Using brittle synthesizer accents to accompany the scaling vocal modulations of the song itself,this is one of a handful of fine slices of the funky pie that Stevie Wonder serves up throughout the double album in general.


One thing about Stevie Wonder and this album is that,along with the Motown Monday radio marathons the local oldies radio stations used to have,is that it kind of gave the preteen Andre the impression of Motown as being almost like a fairy tale kingdom. One that omitted sounds and melodies unlike any other. After learning the reality of the hard work and talents that really went into all of it,I did hear of Richard Pryor’s comedy monologue on 1983’s Motown 25 that indeed viewed the label and its artists as being like Detroit’s knights of the sound table.

Songs In The Key Of Life has a sound that could seem magical to the musically unknowing. And even with knowledge,the magic created ON it never truly goes away. The writer John Hamilton is currently tracing the racial double standard of 20th century pop musically. Namely how veteran (generally white) rock artists are seen as aging with grace while black soul/funk artists are generally placed mainly in the context of the past. On Songs In The Key Of Life,Stevie is not only looking towards the future conceptually. But successfully paved the way for it on a musical level as well.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1976, Afro-Futurism, ARP synthesizer, classic albums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Gospel, message songs, Motown, progressive music, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, Yamaha GX-1

Anatomy Of The Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Talk To The People” by Les McCann

Les McCann was,in terms of my own personal musical exploration,an artist I was introduced to by my father exactly between my explorations of Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. And that actually isn’t a bad way to describe the middle ground McCann’s sound had in terms of Miles’s harmonic richness and Stevie’s unusual melodic senses. After all,both artists were pretty equally jazz in terms of composition. Les McCann was a brilliant composer in his own right. So much so his album Invitation To Openness  was one which my father kept out at our old family summer camp at Pushaw Lake the entire year round.

Les McCann is probably most famous for his song recorded by electric sax pioneer Eddie Harris (another important jazz/funk story I’ll get into another time) called “Compared To What”. That song was written by another frequent collaborator in Eugene McDaniels. McCann just seemed to be bursting with creative energy as a pioneer of synthesizers along with Herbie Hancock in the emerging jazz/funk idiom during the first half of the 1970’s. Albums such as Layers explored this most fully. Both musically and conceptually,the Les McCann song that says it all for me is the title song to his 1972 album Talk To The People.

A gentle electric piano melody from McCann starts off the song before a ringing,bell like percussive rhythm comes in on the drums. As McCann raps,his band are whispering the song title in rhythm in the back round. That turns to lead and backup singing (McDaniels included) as the song begins. A heavily filtered bluesy wah wah rhythm guitar and a thick,bouncing bass line joins in as a huge swell of backup vocals joins in on the choruses. As each refrain and chorus progresses,the instrumentation builds to climactic intensity. And it gradually fades out until only the sound of people talking exists as it fades.

In today’s age of reactionary racism,sexism and general prejudice,”Talk To The People” exists in the world as almost an anthem for a possible solution. Its slow funk,penetrating rhythms and emotionally charged jazzy modulations do indeed speak a very important message for the human race. McCann talks about how a lot of the worlds problems even then stemmed from lack of communication and empathy. Lyrically he comes to the conclusion,even before the song gets going,”lets hate all that does not allow us to love”. That makes this a shining example of why jazz/funk is such an important music.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, electric piano, Eugene McDaniels, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Les McCann, message songs, people music, rap, rhythm guitar

‘Spirit’ Turns 40-Earth Wind & Fire Discovering What Imagination Could Do

Spirit

Earth Wind & Fire’s seventh studio album Spirit turns 40 in the month of September. Which by no coincidence to me considering that was the name of one of EWF’s major hit records a couple years later. Its also no coincidence today that my personal thoughts are on the now departed Maurice White-founder and conceptualist of the band. This album was released when EWF,following up their breakthrough album That’s The Way Of The World with its first proper studio followup,lost Charles Stepney to a heart attack at the beginning of the sessions for this album.

The sad part about this album was that the band members were mourning the loss of what amounted to a un-credited member in Stepney. He helped arrange for Ramsey Lewis when Maurice White drummed for his trio. And was the key to EWF’s breakthrough hits “Shining Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World” and ‘Reasons”. His production style matched White’s Unitarian style spirituality and positively inspiring lyrics. At the same time,I am reminded of a quote that my friend Henrique’s father once told him: what we don’t see is our opportunity.

In that “spirit”,the positive part about this album is that Maurice White could showcase all that he’d learned from working with Charles Stepney as a producer for the past few years. That’s because he’d be producing this album himself. And with the band,Phenix Horns and guest players such as Dorothy Ashby,Harvey Mason and Tom Tom 84,he had the wherewithal to extend on the sound Stepney had laid out for the band. I am listening while writing this to a vinyl copy of this album given to me by another beautiful human being with an amazing record collection named Scott Edwards.

Spirit is an album I’ve listened to on three formats: first cassette tape,then CD and now in its original vinyl release. As I do I think of the energies of Maurice White and Charles Stepney in an unknown world-back together creating a type of music that we the living will not hear. Also thinking of Maurice’s own words about the album being very hard to get through. This is expressed in his dedication to Stepney on the inner sleeve. He describes him having left to the next place-leaving behind much beauty and inspiration to feed upon. On a musical level,here’s what I wrote on Amazon.com about this album


Even though it was a hit there were many elements of their 1975 breakthrough that hadn’t quite defined how EWF would develop in the future. Between the sleek,very live and mic’d up production on this album and the astounding arrangements this album,coming mid decade during the bicentennial year (a great year for funk in general,by the way) this actually was the beginning of the sound most people during the late 70′ associate with EWF and also the middle ground between their mid and late 70’s period.

“Getaway” really points the way to the future as the rhythm becomes more elaborate and the funk grows a bit faster. One would be hard pressed to find a song more determinedly and genuinely positive minded than “On Your Face” and,also the chunky rhythms and point on horns and hand claps tell as much of the story of the vocals. This is also an excellent place to hear both Philip Bailey AND Maurice White singing in falsetto at the same time.

“Imagination” is one of the all time triumphs of Philip Bailey’s career as a vocalist and the orchestration and dynamic arrangement is indeed poetic and imaginative,showing once and for all with all the right parts in place how glorious mid tempo R&B/funk was and how much that style contributed to the genre during this period. The title track is a mass of layered keyboard parts and rhythms that was intended as a tribute to Stepney but also serves as a tribute to the human spirit in general.

“Saturday Night”,upon first listening comes off as a somewhat slicker production of “Shinning Star” but the upbeat hooks easily give it away as a totally different song. There’s even a tune here named for the band itself,another dynamically orchestrated mid tempo funk arrangement that puts into the play the entire manifesto of the band,a blend of their different varieties of spirituality set into something that comes very much from a terrestrial source.

“Biyo” is a very interesting instrumental as it does strongly anticipate the disco sound of the next several years but also shows you how essential funk is to that genre,kind of sealing the concept that disco was less a music than it was merely a dance style based on a certain variation of funk. “Burnin’ Bush” takes another dynamic arrangement and brings to everyone,non Christians included an interpretation of a biblical event interpreted EWF style.

Because of this albums far reaching musical and lyrical themes it’s very hard to figure out how exactly this kind of music would be totally erased from the pop charts a decade later-barely ever to return at all. I cannot say exactly why or how;there are too many reasons to go into but the fact this did exist in the context it did is likely a lesson in and of itself.


My own personal experience with this album is itself having an anniversary this year-the 20th in fact. Since I first experienced this fully during the summer of 1996 when I picked up the CD. Spirit did succeed at maintaining EWF’s mid/late 70’s commercial winning streak-with songs such as “Getaway”,”On Your Face” and “Saturday Night”. On the other hand,there was just something almost intangibly special about this album. The melodies,vocals,how they are arranged and played on are some of the most beautifully soulful and funky ones EWF ever made. And for me,that is Spirit‘s enduring legacy.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under 1976, Amazon.com, Charles Stepney, classic albums, classic funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White, message songs, Music Reviewing, Philip Bailey

Prince Summer: “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (1991)

Prince was undergoing a major change during the early 1990’s. Following the release of his final motion picture Graffiti Bridge,he began putting together a whole new band. He named them the New Power Generation. They were as much a concept as they were a unified band. That’s because even during their first decade together,the NPG had its share of lineup changes. But the idea was an instrumental framework through which Prince could channel the talents of different musicians into his eclectic embracing of styles. This was especially true on his debut with them on 1991’s Diamonds & Pearls. 

On many tracks,this album showcased Prince embracing then contemporary elements of hip-hop and techno/house genres. As always,he had other ideas up his sleeve as well. During this time,Prince began a professional report with film director Spike Lee. They eventually decided to do a collaborative project together. What ended up happening was that Prince asked Spike to pick any song from the Diamonds & Pearls  album to direct as a music video. Spike’s selection was a song that has been speaking to me a lot in recent times entitled “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”.

A drum kickoff gets the song going-the main beat being a steady funky/soul one that contains a slowed down break on every chorus of the song. Prince,singing the song in his lower voice,is accompanied melodically by bell like electric keyboard chords playing off his vocal changes. The guitar of the song is predominantly a soul jazz hiccup with a bass line,as was often typical of Prince,staying right along with it throughout rather than playing any counter chords. On some parts,the guitar hugs the melody completely. After a brief burst of string synthesizer,the guitar break brings the song to an abrupt end.

Musically speaking,this song is a bit different for Prince. With it’s relaxed jazzy pop flavor,the production has more in common with the natural style of instrumentation found in the neo soul genre a decade later. Lyrically,its clear why Spike Lee saw it as so imagistic. The song paints a series of pictures emphasizing the need to “look after ones soul” rather than pursuing financial gain-including then contemporary social commentary about the greed laying behind the Gulf War. Its one of my favorite Prince message songs. And certainly one of his most melodic and easy going in its sound.

 

1 Comment

Filed under 1990s, bass guitar, drums, funk pop, keyboards, message songs, Neo Soul, Prince, rhythm guitar, Spike Lee

George Clinton: Computer Games & Some Of His Best Jokes

George Clinton Album

George Clinton,at age 74 is among the final two principle architects of funk left alive. The other being Sly Stone. It was through his music,among others,that inaugurated me into the wondrous world of musical funkiness when I was a teenager. And that’s probably true for many people within a decade or so of my age. Clinton was the major funk innovator for the baby boomer up through the millennial generation. After a decade of leading the mammoth P-Funk ensemble,George Clinton introduced his music in a solo context in 1982. Here are two reviews of his first and second solo albums-from 1982 and 1985.


Computer Games (1982)

During the first five years of me getting into P-Funk? Part of my ever continuing education on the subject was the understanding of internal connectivity. When most people think of George Clinton? Motherships and clones might come to mind. Somehow the term I associate with him is atomic. An atomic detonation comes from a chain reaction of split atoms.

Originally from one source but,when unleashed,create a powerful burst of energy. That describes P-Funk extremely well to me: the forces of it are many,and ALWAYS behind it’s musical might. So this is not Parliament,Funkadelic or even P-Funk All Stars we’re talking about here. This is George Clinton. Yet Bootsy,Junie,Gary Shider,Fred Wesley are all still here on this 1982 debut of the man now recording under his own name. And as always? He had a lot to say,in his own kind of way.

“Get Dressed” is something of a “star is born” type setup to begin the album with it’s thick,bass heavy stomp with the Horny Horns really getting going with Junie’s funky stride piano for a classic call and response P-Funk jam. “Man’s Best Friend/Loopzilla” is a 12+ minute groove that…well as I told my friend Henrique? Could easily write an entire book chapter on this one song.

It begins with an electronic extension of “(Not Just) Knee Deep” basically. Than it goes directly into this stripped down,early hip-hop type pulse that lyrically references classic Motown to Sir Nose himself. “Pot Sharing Tots” combines reggae and jazzy electric piano for a very insinuating type of melody. The title song combines a scintillating rock solo on the choruses and a funkier rhythm guitar on the refrains.

“Atomic Dog” is the song this album is most remembered for-with it’s double live/backward looped drum machine rhythm and jagged bass synths with it’s bubblin bluesy  melody and iconic singalong choruses of the title and “bow wow wow/yippy yo/yippy yay”. “Free Alternations” is basically a new wave pop/soul re-imaging of the early Detroit R&B sound. “One Fun At A Time” is a sleek pop funk/bubbling bass synthesized fueled ode to romantic commitment.

At least three of these songs follow a conceptual thread of their own-seemingly about the hero’s journey of a player. Yet the concept of funk as a musically fissionable force is explored not only through the lyrics,but the music. Everything from bass,drums, guitar, keyboards and horns bubble up bigger perhaps than anything in P-Funk that came before. It was not only Clinton’s own debut. But the debut for the 80’s variant of P-Funk itself.

Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends/1985

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is the potency of P-Funk during the 1980’s. It was a musical organization that was still touring,still recording music and still maintaining a loyal fan base even when the societal odds were rather against what it stood for. And even with that? Some of the most challenging music from the band was being created during time time as well.

Difference was it was mainly being channeled through George Clinton albums where his personality was the central focus. But all the elements of the band were there. In this cast of musical characters we have future Living Color member Doug Wimbish and new wave/funk hit maker Thomas Dolby along for the ride. And it’s one that deserves to be taken more than once.

“Double Oh-Oh” is an electrified march extenuated by very Minneapolis style synthesized horns and female choir vocals. “Bullet Proof” is intense industrial funk-layer upon layer of bass synth combined with high pitched,laser like electronics and that Arabic type melody used in a lot of dance music of that era.

“Pleasures Of Exhaustion (Do It ‘Til You Drop)” is a long,extended jam with a jagged rhythm with both synthesized and electric slap bass accents-along with flutes. “Bodyguard” is a piano,drum and keyboard led dance/funk jam while “Bangladesh” is a slow,doo wop styled ballad. “Thrashin'”,featuring Dolby and the closing title song are both live bass//guitar and horn based P-Funk that only leaves in the contemporary drum machine for the electronic element.

Very much like it’s predecessor? This album ushered P-Funk into the fully electro funk edge. There’s no irony lost on me there since the band were even in their 70’s heyday pioneers of that sub-genre of funk-with Bernie Worrell’s “video game” style synthesizers. Conceptually this album is probably one of Clinton’s most important in the 80’s. It’s apparent that the Reagan era of SDI and the final days of the Cold War were proving fertile ground for his lyricism.

Again the metaphor of the atomic chain reaction is an important part of this album. But is used to make important points about how Clinton’s “pimping of the pleasure principle” prediction seemed to be coming true before his eyes. Yet both musically AND lyrically? He understood that black America had basic human feelings too. And were in the mind to demand another,better way to live. An album that’s a lot funkier and more significant in it’s day than one might think it to be.


Of course George Clinton’s solo debut Computer Games is now pretty much revered as a classic album. The reason why I included Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends along with this album is that both of them represent an important transition in the focus of Clinton’s musical conception. On these albums,P-Funk met an electronic sound beyond even what it had already helped to bring to the funk genre. And of course George’s sociopolitical commentary never moved an inch either. So with Bernie Worrell now gone,we can only hope George is around long enough to give up just a little more funk.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Atomic Dog, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, elecro funk, George Clinton, message songs, Music Reviewing, P-Funk, synth funk, Walter Junie Morrison