Category Archives: string synthesizer

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Fake” by Alexander O’Neal

Alexander O’Neal’s importance to the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980’s probably hasn’t been as documented as it should be. The Mississippi native migrated to the twin cities by age 20. During that time,he became a member of two bands who’d eventually come together through the late Prince Rogers Nelson to become The Time: Enterprise (of whom Morris Day was a member) and Flyte Tyme (first home of Jimmy Jam,Terry Lewis and Monte Moir). O’Neal was to have been The Time’s original lead singer. He and Prince didn’t seem to have gotten along. So he was dropped in favor of Morris Day.

What O’Neal did do,with the help of Jam & Lewis’s production,was to conceptualize the Minneapolis sound on a solo career he launched in 1985. Cherrelle’s 1985 album (on which O’Neal appeared as a duet partner on “Saturday Love”) and his own sophomore album Hearsay two years later both followed loose concepts revolving around romantic issues of the mid/late 80’s such as artifice and honesty. As far as O’Neal’s album went,one of the best examples of how this concept dovetailed so well into the funkiest of his music came with the 1987 UK hit single “Fake”.

A pounding,cymbal heavy,percussive drum machine starts out the song. A synth piano scale down gets right into the rest of the song. Another main rhythmic feature of the song comes in-a thick,brittle (and possibly double tracked) synth bass part. Over this is a sizzling synth string orchestration. A higher bass tone accents this on O’Neal’s vocal parts. On the brief bridges before the choruses,big melodic synth brass plays call and response to O’Neal’s vocals. The chorus and refrain both maintain the same similar backing even to the fade out of the song itself.

Friend Henrique Hopkins described this as being a type of funk that’s “punishing”. And that description fits extremely well. This is hardcore,cutting edge industrial funk of the highest order-similar to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” only with an even thicker funk bump to it. Lyrically it goes well with the albums concept as O’Neal is attracted to a lady who does little more than put on series physical airs just to get attention. The song on the other hand makes no apologies for how funky it is. It manages to be stripped down and sonically dense all at the same time. And its probably my very favorite piece of funk from O’Neal.

 

 

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Filed under 1987, Alexander O'Neal, drum machines, Industrial funk, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, string synthesizer, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, The Time

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Where Did Your Heart Go?” by Was (Not Was)

Was (N0t Was) were a passion shared between my father and I during the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Detroit natives David Weiss and Don Ferguson (who changed their professional names to “Was”) were childhood friends from the suburbs. Due in part to Don’s impoverished life at the time,they duo came together to form Was (Not Was) in 1979. The pair composed the music and wrote the lyrics,while two vocalists in Sir Harry Bowens and “Sweet Pea” Atkinson rounded out the quartet. Was (Not Was) became one of the most important and unique musical collectives of the 80’s and early 90’s.

Don Was would become a well known producer for artists such as Bonnie Raitt,Stevie Nicks,Carly Simon,Ziggy Marley,Bob Dylan and Hootie & The Blowfish. His own band on the other hand specialized in a funky stew of music that often placed guest singers in unexpected musical settings. As for Sweet Pea Atkinson,he seems to be a bit of a mystery man. But its his birthday today. And vocally speaking,he’s one of my personal favorite aspects of Was (Not Was)’s sound. One of his highlights with the group came via their self titled 1981 album. It was entitled “Where Did You Your Heart Go?”.

Sweet Pea opens the song singing the lead chorus of the song as a swinging drum brush plays through in the back round along with Johnny Allen’s string arrangements and a counter melody by sax player David McMurray. The jazzy funk bass lines of Jervonny Collier kind of create the main body of the song from this point onward. All led into by McMurray’s sax and a slow crawling drum/percussion based groove. Between the refrain to chorus transitions,a high brittle melodic synthesizer and a string synth with more polyphony play a lead role. After another sax solo,the chorus brings the song to its end.

One thing my father and I both agreed on listening to this album was the strength of this song. Sweet Pea Atkinson’s strong,rangy and idiosyncratic vocal inflections are part of what carries it. Even more so,Don and David actually crafted this song specifically to his style-fashioning a sophistifunk number with the melodic modulations of an mid 20th century American pop standard. As Henrique Hopkins recently pointed out to me,Wham! covered the song in 1986. And hi Henrique’s case,that’s what he thought was the original version. Shows you how melodically strong funk/soul songwriting always finds its place.

 

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Filed under 1980's, David McMurray, David Was, Don Was, drums, Funk Bass, Jervonny Callier, Johnny Allen, percussion, Saxophone, string synthesizer, Sweet Pea Atkinson, synthesizers, Was (Not Was)

Anatomy Of THE Groove Special For Womens Equality Day: “Street Corner” by Ashford & Simpson

Valerie Simpson is turning 70 years old today. That comes as very important in that today is Women’s Equality Day. As far as I’m concerned,Simpson is a pioneer female songwriter for so many reasons. She maintained a very close marriage and professional relationship with Nick Ashford until the day he died. She also kept her own name professionally throughout their career together. And this included,of course their salad years at Motown- spinning out hits for people such as Marvin Gaye & Tammi Tarrell. That’s not to mention the duo continuing to maintain a successful solo career well into the 1980’s.

Ashford & Simpson albums always tended towards the most elaborately arranged and musically diverse wife/husband duet albums I’ve ever heard. By the early 1980’s,the pair had hits for themselves and others in the form of  punchy funk,streamlined disco and elegant ballads. In 1982 the pair decided to put together a concept album. A decade before the arrival of hip-hop’s G-Funk sub-genre,the couple decided to use the contemporary post disco musical basis to present very personalized vignette with a street level basis. it was called Street Opera. And its biggest hit was “Street Corner”.

A slow and steady 4/4 drum just starts right up at the beginning of the song and continues throughout until the very end. On the intro,there’s a low thudding piano chord. Before each one there’s a thick guitar rev. After that,the bass line chugs along underneath a higher pitched piano playing a lead melody-with a string synthesizer joining the horn solos just before Nick & Val’s vocal chorus kicks in. On the refrains,the musical theme calms to a processed electric piano based melody and rhythm. But that instrumental chorus from the intro provides the basis for the entire song until it fades out.

Instrumentally speaking,this is one of the most lushly constructed example of the funkiest end of the early 80’s post disco sound I’ve heard. The main musical theme doesn’t vary all that much. But each instrumental statement the song makes is very strong. Lyrically its a very liberating tale of a ghetto woman who is…well either mistaken for naive or mistaken for a prostitute. Either way,Valerie Simpson is telling a man asking her for a ride that “the little girl has grown”. So it showcases how feminine dignity exists alive and well on the street corners across America.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Ashford & Simpson, concept albums, drums, Funk Bass, horns, Nick Ashford, piano, post disco, rhythm guitar, string synthesizer, Valerie Simpson, Women, Women's Equality Day