Today being Martin Luther King Day brings up an event that occurred during my lifetime ,but of which I am also too young to remember fully. In the early 1980’s Stevie Wonder along with fellow musical artist/writer/poet Gil Scott Heron really championed the crusade to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. He even wrote a song for the occasion called “Happy Birthday”,included on Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter Than July. It was a song that was recorded and released five years earlier,however, that’s always gotten my attention-from hearing it on 8-track at the families lakeside camp growing up to my present day discussions with friend and fellow music lover Henrique Hopkins.
With an elaborate production taking two and a half years to complete,Stevie Wonder finally managed to release his double album plus four song EP which he entitled Songs In The Key Of Life. It continued the man’s commercial and creative winning streak that had began earlier in the decade. And did so by really reaching for even more imaginative and reflective instrumental,lyrical and compositional heights. One of the songs that impacted me on this sprawling opus was another example of being deeply effected by music that was not a huge commercial hit. But to me anyway,it’s the glue that made the entire album function as a strong musical statement. It was called “Black Man”.
Rhythmic intensity defines the groove from the get go. It’s a fast marching drum rhythm-accentuated by a lightly melodic ring modulated drum sound. A deep Clavinet solo is soon joined by a brittle Moog bass solo. A wandering,higher pitched synthesizer soon joins in along with the horns of Stevie’s band Wonderlove playing the melodic accents of his lead vocal parts. The bridge strips back most the instrumentation so the only things heard are the main rhythm,the modulated one. This leads into a intertwining pair of synthesizers playing a bluesy jazz melody before going back into the main theme-with a verbalized classroom recitation along with Stevie on Vocorder illustrating the songs lyrical theme.
The first time I heard this song,my mother described this song as a history lesson. And that is exactly what this is. Time has allowed me to appreciate on just how many levels it is. Stevie’s outlook on race relations here is not merely integrationist, but understanding the vitality and difference each race present in America brings to the nations continuity. Far as it’s place in black history goes names such as Benjamin Banneker,Garrett Morgan and Dr.Charles Drew would have remained unknown to me-as well as their contributions to the country. They all played a part,as Stevie sang of who helped make our banner wave during the bicentennial year this song was written to celebrate.
One major element that permeated the entire Songs In The Key Of Life album (especially this particular song) was Stevie’s use of the Yamaha GX-1,known as the Dream Machine. It was a double keyboarded synthesizer with a rhythm machine. It felt like a Hammond B-3 organ, but was a very tonally advanced polyphonic synthesizer underneath. It allowed Stevie to build the sound of his own sound along with Wonderlove. The most important thing one can ever say about Stevie Wonder as a musician is his contribution of innovative tonal sounds. Herbie Hancock once pointed out Stevie’s ability to deal with synthesizers on an organic level allowed it to become it’s own instrumental element of the band itself.
Instrumentally speaking,this might well be one of Stevie Wonder’s most exciting compositions. The energy level is both high enough to reach a breaking point, and controlled at a level where the excitement is totally attainable to the listener. The tempo is a lot faster than it is for most funk. Yet rhythm is locked down to a point where the multiple melodic conversations of the different keyboard and synthesizer tones that define this song express tonally the cultural diversity of America for the next almost 40 years from when this song was created to the present day. It’s one of a view songs out there with the power to get every American,of every shade to dance to it’s rhythms.
Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1970's, Black History, clavinet, drums, Funk, horns, Martin Luther King Jr., Moog, ring modulator, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized, Wonderlove, Yamaha GX-1
On their final 70’s album Energy To Burn,BT Express showed themselves to be a band who was in the process of slickening up their sound. One year after that their keyboardist Michael Jones,key to their new sound,left the band under his new name of Kashif Saleem. He would of course go onto become one of the premiere producers of the next decade and a key architect of the boogie funk sound. What would be left for guitarist/singer Rich Thompson and company to do within the band who had only a few years earlier been so successful. Similar to Gil Scot Heron and Brian Jackson,B.T Express elected to title their 1980 album after the year itself-every bit as symbolic of their comeback as with the changes any musician could see coming up from under the groove at the time.
“Takin’ Off” begins the album with a symphonic fanfare of horns before launching into a hyper kinetic,percussion dance/funk number. “Heart Of Fire” literally doesn’t skip a heart beat,with a rhythm helped along by a punchy had smooth as glass synth bass intro that repeats on the refrains of the song. “Does It Feel Good To You” has a strong choral melody and a bass/piano led disco friendly dance/funk number with some powerful horns and percussive effects. “Give Up The Funk (Let’s Dance)” leaps right out as a possible best track on the album with it’s rapped intro increasing in volume until the slow 4/4 beat and percussive early drum machine kicks in to Thompson’s hard groove rhythm guitar and the classic B.T. Express call and response horns,vocals and percussion.
“Closer” and “Better Late Than Ever” are both fine ballads that are beautifully orchestrated and melodic while “Have Some Fun” is another disco friendly melodic dance/funk groove. “Funk Theory” ends the album on a rhythmically and melodically dynamic Brazilian dance/funk note with lyrics that talk about how especially in uncertain times,funk music has enormous power to bring different people together to do their dances-whatever they may be. Musically speaking this album has exceptionally high energy level. Possibly taking cues from Barry White and Quincy Jones’ productions of that era,the sound is extremely crisp and studiocentric rather than the more live sound the band was noted for. Not only that,but it really tuned into funk futurism. What with the mixture of drum machines and live drumming and at least one nod to the oncoming presence of rap. A wonderfully funky B.T. Express intro to the 80’s. And very likely more important to where the music had been and where it was going than anyone may even still think.
Originally posted on January 16th,2015
Link to original review here*
It actually took several listens to Janelle Monae’s full length album debut The ArchAndroid to fully grasp it’s musical virtues before even being able to review it in my head,lead alone here in black and white. That was several years ago. And the review I did do here only came after seeing her live in concert a year after that. It was a truly captivating experience: “united funk” all the way-meaningful grooves,messages and an enormous amount of involvement and communication with the audience. Strangely enough after that,a certain level of cynicism began to sink in on my part. Attitudes like…what if Monae’s intense creativity was a gimmicky fluke? Would she become a generic artist pimping the pleasure principle like so many the next time,to sell more albums? And had the early 1990’s style critical negativity gotten to me at last? How selfish of me. Here was the very fulfillment of the musical desires and imaginative ideas I’d had since adolescence manifesting itself before my eyes. Why reject that for the sake of psychically numb realism? When I heard earlier in the year her follow up was about to arrive,it was a summer of waiting with baited breath to here the musical fruits of her passions. With no hyperbole intended,I am astounded with what was heard!
Beginning with “Electric Overture”, Suit IV a swirling blend of cinema and surf rock guitar we go into “Givin’ Em What They Love”-a thudding and minimal funk-rocker featuring of course Prince himself. Having heard a version of “Q.U.E.E.N” during the summer,this Erykah Badu duet is a superbly realized Minneapolis style rhythm guitar/spicy boogie funk synthesizer. “Electric Lady” slows the groove right down to a crawl with this heavily texturized electronics bubbling up from an heavily reverbed drum and bass line-Monae and Solange Knowles’s voice blending into perfect harmony. On “Primetime” Janelle and Miguel’s male/female duet is set within the musical framework of another spare,lightly beat heavy (and therefore very funky) mid tempo ballad. “We’re Only Rock ‘N Roll” jumps right into a sleeker interpretation of the classic James Brown groove than on the previous albums “Tightrope”-as well as having a more melodically constructed song craft about it. “The Dance Apocalyptic” goes right for the heart of this uptempo Caribbean-type funk jaunt while “Look Into My Eyes” brings in the Spanish tinge with a sensually flamenco inflected tango.
Suit V begins with the beautifully cinematic orchestral 60’s type next part of the “electric overture” before going into the early 70’s Chicago soul inspired “It’s Code” which,along with “Can’t Live Without Your Love” and “Victory” bring out that “sweet funk” sound of that specific musical ethic. With it’s theatrical blend of synthesizer bass and intense rhythm “Ghetto Woman” is complexly melodic electronic funk like you’ve never heard it before-asking for sympathy for it’s character rather than the derision of society.”Sally Ride” is a tight,slowed down foot stomper of a jam that’s full of honesty and a little attitude. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”,with the equally talented Esperanza Spalding,is absolutely amazing-with it’s thorough understanding of jazzy style keyboard textures and sensual,truth telling rhythms. Not to mention melodic and harmony suggestions that are alternately passionate and paranoid in the best heavy on easy sophistifunk fashion before ending the album with the slow and dynamic boogie funk of “What An Experience”.
Many of the songs on this album feature interludes such as “Good Morning Midnight”,”The Chrome Shoppe” and “Our Favorite Fugitive”,narrated by DJ Crash Crash that illustrate this albums concept. Cindy Mayweather,the space faring archandroid has arrived at the threshold of an apocalypse-with only a group of Mayweather clones called the Electric Ladies providing a degree of satisfaction. Is it another P-Funk like conceptual tract? Not at all. This album is full of many different variations of what actually turns out to be a very important message to the listener. In an environment where a culture itself is almost entirely ruled by fear of one thing or another without realizing it,the best way to live life is to be aware and gain knowledge. But also to be in a position where you can change things for the better. This theme isn’t illustrated by mere preaching. There’s a theatrical storyline just as with her first two releases,as well as a set of characters with their own situations. The stage was set,the players were in place for this album and Janelle Monae more than showed she could dance-literally and figuratively. She has affirmed her place as the much needed innovator of the funk/soul/jazz/R&B spectrum and did so by diving head long into the funky gumbo of Stevie Wonder,Prince,James Brown,Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield that she channels into her musical orbit. An amazing piece of music that,on many levels,words may not be able to adequately describe.
*For Original Amazon Review,Follow This Link:
Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Esperanza Spalding, Funk, Janelle Monae, Minneapolis, Prince, Solange', Soul, Stevie Wonder, Women
Personally I can truly relate to Harvey Fierstein’s remark about having to have to a literal translation of heterosexual romance to apply to who I was as a homosexual man. Right in the middle of when I was getting deeply into funk and soul? I’d often find myself asking “why are these love themed songs about the opposite sex only?”. Many years later,I would learn of the homosexuality of the late Wayne Cooper (from Cameo) and Billy Preston. Also,and somewhat unfortunately of the homophobic content of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Subject Was Faggots” and,far less overtly Graham Central Stations otherwise extremely funky song “Mirror”. But during much of the 1990’s? Any reference to homosexuality in funk/soul music was truly a dark theater. As was often the case with me growing up,my father introduced me to the song that really changed this factor in my adolescent life. And before he was (at least admittedly) are that I was gay no less. Not only that but it was the revelation of a new artist-during that personally disturbing summer of 1996. The artist was Me’SHell Ndegeocello,the CD was Peace Beyond Passion and the song was called “Leviticus: Faggot”.
The song begins with a high hat drum kick that increases in volume until Me’Shell’s sturdy,popping and ascending bass line kicks in-very prominently so as well. Surrounded by layers of wah-wah guitar and even a cinematic string section? The music is as straight up mid 70’s “united funk”,as writer Ricky Vincent refers to it,as one could possibly get. Me’Shell half sings/rhythmically speaks in her slippery baritone as she tells the tale of a young gay black man-as she describes a situation where “daddy’s sweet little boy’s just a little too sweet”. As she illustrates his desire for love “from strong hands” and “wanting the love of a man”. The chorus immediately turns into a full on hallelujah gospel chorus of “his mother would pray” before returning to the full on funk approach as Me’Shell states the actual prayer of “save him from this life”. The story continues on as the mans father tries to find him that woman “fine and beautiful” to give him more acceptability among the family’s social circle. After finally throwing his gay son out of the house,the music suddenly turns to an uncertain electric piano based jazz-funk sound as the song closes-with Me’Shell’s harmonizing vocalese leading out.
One thing that I never told my family,or anyone else for that matter until now, is that this song was the beginning of a six-seven year thought process that culminated in me coming out of the closet. I knew my family would never conceive of reacting as the father in this songs lyrics did. But in the end,Me’Shell provided a means by which funk was not only changing my perceptions of music. But funk was also now instrumental in helping me to come to terms with the truth of my own sexual orientation. The thing that really moves me about “Leviticus: Faggot”,it’s title of course referring to the often opportunistically quoted-out-of-context biblical verse,is that it came out long before any massive LGBT oriented activism was in the media. Very few homosexual male celebrities,especially in the black community,were truthfully discussing their sexuality. And even Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet at this time. KD Lang not withstanding. Though I was aware that Boy George was bold enough in his soulful and funky new wave era music to sing to and about male characters in his songs? The fact that Me’Shell Ndegeocello,herself a relatively new up and coming artist,was making “people music” funk in a Nina Simone style about the then still uncomfortable subject matter of homophobia at this particular time? It showed me how much bravery and fearlessness she has. And that any person who are who they are should really have in terms of speaking,singing and playing the truth about themselves.
“Welcome to a new weekly segment of my own here on Andresmusictalk! For the first posting of this particular segment, I wanted to offer some clarification on why this exists. My blogging partner Henrique Hopkins suggested to me that because my music reviews on Amazon.com give such a well rounded and detailed take on different musical albums,it would be a good idea to post them here in a blog format to bring extra attention to them. Not only did I feel this is a good idea to help inspire other Amazon reviewers to give themselves permission to give more well rounded discourse in their reviews,but will also give me a chance to showcase new music in that funk,soul and jazz vein that is making significant contributions to creative and cultural futurism. This blog will generally appear every Saturday-perhaps a New Music Tuesday edition might appear on Wednesday’s on occasion. Anyhow enjoy this new feature. Thank you!”
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I discovered Aloe Blacc’s previous album to this Good Things on sale at Bull Moose,the local record store in my neck of the woods. Wondered why an album already several years old would’ve been on sale at this particular point. When I looked up the Orange County native with the apparently Panamanian back round,I discovered an unusually multi talented artist. Unusual in the sense that,aside from being a singer/songwriter and pianist but also a trumpet player. Quite unusual to hear of anyone today in the soul/funk spectrum who would be able to recognize that two seemingly disparate sounding musical instruments would both contribute nicely to a one-man band rhythm section. Not only that but before his current signing to Interscope Records,Blacc was involved in a musical collective strongly pushing pro immigration causes. That humanistic element really got my ears braced for what I’d hear when I listened to this album.
“The Man” starts out the album,a wonderfully dynamic wall of sound type soul type anthem of empowerment that brings to mind a contemporary black man’s interpretation of the E-Street Band style arena rock ‘n soul sound-filled with gospel infused spirit and energy. This musical concept returns with even stronger results on “Here Today”. The Pharrell Williams produced “Love Is The Answer” is my personal favorite here-a cleanly played and lean bass/guitar driven dance/funk arrangement that pleads eloquently for caring over cynicism in today’s world with Blacc’s deep and bluesy Gil Scott-Heron like vocal style and phrasing. Though not produced by Pharrell “Can You Do This” evokes a Dap-Tone-like 60’s soul/funk tone similar to what Pharrell is currently doing on some of his songs. A version of his older song “Wake Me Up” is presented here in an acoustic country/folk style. “Chasing” evokes the reverb heavy uptempo gospel inspired Sam Cooke style late 50’s soul while the cinematic “The Hand Is Quicker” and to even more effect “The Hand Is Quicker” have a very deep Southern blues inflected gospel attitude. The album closes with the Memphis style country soul ballad of “Red Velvet Seat” and the almost Philly/Chicago style “sweet funk” groove of the grateful and passionate “Owe It All”.
Overall this is one of the most unconventional and far reaching albums I’ve heard made by a young black man in the new millennium. None of the music here is at all devoted to patronizing anything at all involving contemporary electronic hip-hop/dance style productions that dominates the soul/funk/R&B world of today still. Therefore it is not neo soul either. Nor is it a purely nostalgic retro project of any kind. This is a powerful and diverse album that manages to utilize completely modern musical production techniques and digital sound as a means of communicating what,for all intents and purposes,is something based entirely of the music of the deep Southern funk,soul and especially hard acoustic folksy blues flavors. Most importantly,he utilizes this soulfully rooted instrumental platform as a means to express a number of important lyrical messages-ranging from empowerment to the every changing moods within the ongoing battle of the sexes. His lyrical and melodic construction of his songwriting is strongly indicative of someone who realizes that a modern black male artist can possibly begin to innovate in the soul/funk spectrum without totally embracing the most juvenile elements of the mass market variant of hip-hop. And if this album is any indication,this is definitely an artist that admirers of rootsy soul/funk/blues/jazz will want to keep an eye on in the future!
-Originally written on March 11th,2014