Category Archives: ?uestlove

Anatomy of THE Groove 12/19/14 Rique’s Pick : “1000 Deaths” by D’Angelo And the Vangaurd

The Godfather of Soul James Brown used to have a kind of a test for how funky a record was. He once remarked about Kool & The Gang’s “Funky Stuff” that it was so funky, he had to pull over his car while he was driving because if he didn’t, he’d have wrecked from grooving so hard. The militant, grinding, insistent on the beat groove of “1000 Death’s” from D’Angelo’s long awaited third album, “Black Messiah”, fits my criteria for such a recording. This song perhaps carries the theme of the album as well as any other found on it. The title is a variation of a quote Julius Ceaser by Wiliam Shakesphere, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” This saying has been quoted in many forms over the years, but has come down into the popular urban lexicon from actor and rapper Tupac Shakur, who said it in the form of “A coward dies a thousand deaths, A soldier dies but once.” D’Angelo takes this idea and crafts a narrative that fits the last five to six years of renewed militant activism, from the Oscar Grant protests, to Occupy Wall Street, from the Egyptian Revolution to the protestors facing off against militarized cops in Fergueson, Missouri. D crafts a vicious, pounding funk jam that goes inside a soldiers mind, framing this battle as a righteous one instituted by “Yahweh (Jehovah) and Yehushuah (Jesus) themselves.

The song begins with some distorted guitar and Questlove’s snare drum tapping out some practice notes, but they serve almost as if the instruments are beckoning your attention to the vocal sample that is about to play. Khalid Muhammed, the controversial 1990s era Nation of Islam minister is the speaker, talking about Jesus, but not the white, European image of him that has been sold. He speaks of Jesus as a sun burned man with skin of brass and “hair like lambs wool”, and also a man who was a revolutionary and turned down Satans “New World Order.” Not only does Muhammed’s speech provide the spiritual grounding for the album theme of a revolutionary “Black Messiah”, it also links D’s music and song to the great legacy of ’90s revolutionary hip hop that sampled speeches by leaders like Khalid Muhammed. In fact, Muhammed’s voice can be found on the intro to Public Enemy’s classic “Night of the Living Baseheads (“the way many of us act….we’ve even lost our minds.”) As Minister Muhammed continues to speak in praise of nappy hair, the funky revolutionary beat revs up, with Questlove providing the sort of solid eighth note kick based back beat drumming that provided so much of the foundation for hip hop. They are able to get a sound on the drums that is very reminiscent of the late ’60s, early ’70s funk drum sound that hip hoppers of D and Questlove’s generation cherished so much.

Distorted wah wah guitars lace the track as D’Angelo introduces a wicked, chugging slap bassline underneath Minister Muhammed’s speech. D chokes and hammers on two high bass notes before going to a muddy, drilling, dead pitch, percussive bass line, only briefly breaking out some melodic notes as accents. The bass sounds like marching music fit for basic training the world’s funkiest army. Underneath another sample begins to play, of Chicago Black Panther Minister Fred Hampton, one of the greatest of the Panther leaders, a devoted community activist murdered in his sleep by the police in the late ’60s. Minister Muhammed’s speech provides the more emotional basis for D’Angelo’s soldiers battle, almost like a fiery black cleric urging his charges into battle. While Chairman Fred provides the more rationed reasons for resisting capitalist colonialism. D’s vocals come in, as distorted as ever, almost having a quality of being sung over a cheap walkie talkie. His character talks about getting over his fear and going over the hill in battle. The music keeps pounding and going forward, like a soldiers relentless marching with Questlove’s relentless hi hats pushing it forward.

D’s lyrics and vocals sound like the interior dialouge of a person about to go into battle: “I can’t believe I cant get over my fear/They’re gonna send me over the hill/Ah the moment of truth is near/They’re gonna send me over the hill”. He goes from that insecurity to a kind of a thrill of being in battle, the complete opposite, reckless side of war.

That’s when the chorus comes in, where the music switiches up to a massive, heavy pentatonic riff, reminiscent very much so of pre-1976 Funkadelic. It’s a riff in the style of Rock, with several instruments playing the same line, and the chorus serving as the inspiration to D’s scared soldier, “It’s War! That is the Lord!/I wont nut up when we up thick in the crunch/Because a coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier dies just Once.” The song rides out with several minutes of pure early P-Funk style funk rock jamming, with Questlove upping the intensity of his rhythms, strong guitar soloing and the Vangaurd’s voices wailing.

“1000 Deaths” is a very interesting song, for one, it’s one of the most on the beat things D’Angelo has ever done. D is known for his laid back, lazy swinging rhythms but this song is a whole nother thing, aggressive and on top of the beat. And it is fitting due to it’s militant subject matter. The song is open to many interpretations, but what D gave us for sure is an aggressive, funky, intense track. On top of that he layers speeches by black activists to support a narrative of a soldier conquering his or her fears. Of course, there are many kinds of social justice soldiers, including Dr. King and his activists in Selma, as well as the Black Panthers. D’Angelo has created a powerful piece of art that can inspire in many different contexts. And sadly, I feel it will be more and more necessary as America in particular faces more and more confrontation over issues of social justice. But I’m glad D has done his part with super heavy funk!

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Anatomy of THE Groove 10/03/14 Rique’s Pick: “Chicken Grease” by D’Angelo

When D’Angelo and his fellow Soulquarians and other collaborators such as Questlove, James Poysuer, the late great J Dilla, Raphael Saddiq and Pino Palladino got together to produce what would become the landmark smoky funk masterpiece “Voodoo”, they took a deep and studious approach to their craft. What came out of that is an album, that, as Saul Williams spoke of in his wonderful liner note essay, distilled the essence of many of the great artists of the Funk/Jazz/Soul boom into D’s brew. One of the most prominent flavors in that brew was the mercurial and kalaedoscopic funk of the artist who went back to his birth name, Prince, in the same year D’s album was released. “Chicken Grease” is a funky stepper from that album that is my pick for today’s Friday Funk Feature. The song takes it’s title from one of Prince’s funk music concepts, a name he has for a sixteenth note, droning, unaccented funk guitar figure that goes back to things such as the intro to The Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces.” D’Angelo includes that “chicken grease” guitar part in this song, but the track itself was a manifesto of back to the basics new funk in the ’00s, with it’s dry sound and bopping, hip rhythm.

“Chicken Grease” begins with a drummer tapping out a New Orleans snare drum rhythm and people laughing and hanging out in the background. Soon after, Questlove kicks in with a dry, funky drum beat played in the classic rhythm style D and his co creators pioneered on this album. This album has been noted for it’s lazy, laid back swinging rhythms, mainly influenced by the late great Detroit Hip Hop and R&B Producer Jay Dee’s funky drum programming. Jay Dee went through great lengths to program his drums with the feeling of a human drummer. The result on “Voodoo” was an album whos beats felt like they came from an entirely different planet than what was popular on the radio at the time. Even live drummers had been focusing on making their drum beats as precise as the drum machine if they wanted to get work. The musicians on the tracks on this album adopted a laid back, behind the beat approach, the kind found in the work of Funk artists such as The Meters and Parliament-Funkadelic, and is a hallmark of New Orleans funk in particular.

After the drum beat kicks in, a clean guitar tone massages the ear, reminiscent of ’90s jazz-funk-hip hop fusions. A greasy, funky bass line soon joins it, totally avoiding the “one ” of the measure, letting the guitar part play on that beat, and playing off beat two. The guitar and bass points line up in holy matrimony on beat two. The bass rests and plays a funky phrase in the next bar. All in all the bass is a sparse, funky line that reminds one of the sparese type of funk you’d find on a hip hop record, but the tone is straight up dry funk!

As far as the “Chicken Grease” that Prince named, is it in the song? Yes, the droning funky guitar part can be found in several points of the tune, at one point in particular D asks for it and you can hear it chiming in in the background. As for the lyrics? D did something here close to a “true” funk song if you will. Funky beats can support any type of lyrical text, from political protest, to ballad themes, to sex, to novelty lyrics, to explicit gangster rap. But when James Brown made his seminal contribution to the funk groove with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, he hit with a lyrical text that simply described his amazement at the groove he had concocted with his band. From then on, a good portion of funk lyrics have simply described and reveled in how funky the groove was and what that groove would do to ‘ya. D’Angelo does this and approaches it in the manner of the original party starting hip hop M.C’s, even quoting one of the greatest, Rakim, saying, “Let the others go first/so the brothers won’t miss”, from the Eric B and Rakim classic “I Know You Got Soul.”

D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” was an album that surprised me when it came out. It promised a return to funk, but by the year 2000, Lauryn Hill and Outkast had already done that to various degrees with great success. But I never expected the type of lazy, dry toned, unaccented, grooving funk D’Angelo and co. gave us on this album, music inspired by the boom bap head nod of hip hop. Just as funk adapted itself to the up tempos of disco in the late ’70s, D tailored his funk to his love of the prevailing lyrically focused, slow but chunky hip hop of the ’90s. He also did it with a sound that used very few gimmicks or studio flourishes. I see that album more and more as D giving you the basic nutrients of funk, and he relaid the foundation so well he left artists coming behind him nothing to do but build up from there.

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Filed under 1990s, ?uestlove, Acid Jazz, Africa, Blogging, Funk, Hip-Hop, James Brown, Jazz-Funk, Lauryn Hill, Music Reviewing

Anatomy of THE Groove 8/29/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Breakfast Can Wait” by Prince

In the past several years,Prince seems to have been concentrating more on the means by which to distribute his music than in actually releasing anything. Many,including myself,have seen this as a source of frustration. To paraphrase my blogging partner Rique? Any and all new Prince releases are seen,within the funk musician/admirer communities ,as being a major event. After all,just about every funky artist these days with a strong instrumental acumen site Prince as a primarily influence. With the majority of Prince’s music absent from YouTube,a Vevo video service showed up last year for him. It included one video to one song that,according to Amazon,features sleeve art picturing Dave Chappelle in his comic impression of Prince holding a place of pancakes. Very appropriate-especially considering the name of the song is “Breakfast Can Wait”.

It all starts off with what sounds like sizzling on a grill (a very funky sound effect,if I may say so myself) and goes into a drum kickoff after which a a fender rhodes starts into what is an intermingled blend of electric piano,phat popping slap bass lines which Prince revved up upon each refrain and a very steady variation of the stop-start drum machine pattern Prince helped pioneer over 30 years ago on the LINN. Lyrically he focuses on a similar metaphor that James Brown once used to describe musical ideas he wanted-“Pass The Peas” and so forth. Only this time,the focus is very much on a…very physical wake up call where Prince tells his lady lover “Grits and gravy,cheese eggs and jam/can nobody cook like you girl”. On the final refrain of the song,the melody slips into the minor chords a bit with Prince vocals having a modern variation of his late 80’s “chipmunked” vocal effect used as part of his Camille persona.

One of the things about this song that hit me right off is how immediately jazzy the groove is. Its very stripped down in classic Prince style. On the other hand,it explores a side of his musical spectrum that he doesn’t showcase all that often. I’ve always felt the jazz idiom and Prince’s persona went very well together as he musically matured. Wynton Marsalis once coined that the original meaning for jazz for him was procreation-a possible result of the sexuality Prince has always projected. However there’s also a profundity to that since Prince’s music is also always recreating itself-stretching one idea into another. And on this album? Prince’s renowned instrumental talents actually take on a similar direction as to the conceptualizations of The Roots’ Questlove-a jazzy live instrumental hip-hop sound based strongly in funk. Since this showcases Prince’s realization that funk is a total bottom line of his entire musical concept? There’s strong signs some of his strongest grooves are still yet ahead of him.

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