Tag Archives: hip-hop

‘Faith’ In Its 30th Year: George Michael Goes Solo!

 

George Michael’s solo debut album Faith won’t officially turn 30 for another couple of months. Just couldn’t wait to discuss this particular album. It came along during that 1986-1988 time period that my friend Henrique and I often discussed. It was a period where rock and pop artists could again integrate elements of funk and soul into their music. Where guitar based rock across entire albums was no longer the standard. Danceable,funky music was making a huge comeback in 1987 in particular. And George Michael began his solo career right in that creative frame of mind.

For his part, George Michael basically made a move that would follow onto what Justin Timberlake would do 15 years later: leave a group that was popular with the teen set and emerge with a rather adult solo album. And even Don, the owner of the local record store in Bangor Maine called Dr. Records praised Faith as the very finest album George Michael made. I also have personal memories connected to it-especially seeing its video clips as part of the Friday Night Videos TV magazine program. What I wanted to present here today is a review I wrote on Amazon.com for the album six years ago.


Interesting how you can like a piece of music on one level but have it grow on you in totally different ways. Of course one of the things that has made this album special to me is how it’s stood the passage of time. Didn’t seem that way living through it but the late 1980’s were actually a pretty divided time in terms of pop music. There was a lot of discontentment at how things were going,in terms of popularity versus creativity,that would only really come to the surface years later.

In terms of where George Michael stood at this point,Wham! had gone out on one final tour following their last release Music From the Edge of Heaven and it was time for George to go out on his own. It had been coming for some time. In fact many contend that Wham! owes every single bit of it’s musical potency to his talent. Where George’s talents played an enormous part in it,there was an actual band involved and Andrew Ridgley who was perceived more as pure eye candy.

It was mostly teen idol folly to a degree. But the talent was there in George. So where exactly was he going to take it the first time out? The title song itself and it’s video,sporting George playing a mean rockabilly in leather and jeans is a great,soulful rocker. An obvious hit. Same goes for the slower “Father Figure” with it’s mixture of Eastern melodies,gospel choirs and twisted sexual fantasy.

What makes this album most notable to me is even on those,but more for the rest of the album it totally rejects the fluffier pop melodies on Wham!’s previous two albums in favor of extending more on the sound of the debut album Fantastic. In short this finds it’s success on all accounts by being a very muscular contemporary soul/funk album. The surprisingly un-commercial 9+ minute hit “I Want Your Sex” is a great example.

Starting as stripped down Minneapolis type funk it goes into this live band funk part,complete with a hot horn section. “One More Try” is a spare ballad in the spirit of “A Different Corner” from that final Wham! album. “Hard Day” gets into some heavy old school hip-hop/80’s funk grooves. “Hand To Mouth” tells a compelling street corner story with a breezier funky soul dance type rhythm. “Look At Your Hands” comes to terms with a vibrant rock and soul type number.

On “Monkey”,George deals with his lovers drug problems (so it would seem) over some heavy 80’s Cameo type funk. “Kissing A Fool” is a very 50’s style soul ballad,in the spirit of Ray Charles using something jazz oriented instrumentation. A modern day standard,if you will. There’s a heavy hip-hop/scratch influenced Shep Pettibone remix of “Hard Day” here too as well as “A Last Request” which,listed as “I Want Your Sex Part 3” is an electronic percussive Brit-Funk type number.

One of my favorites here really. So it was a massive hit and likely outsold Wham!’s three records combined. Was it a hit parade? Not really. This is actually a very cohesive album and,although not obviously conceptual follows a loose theme of adult realizations of poverty,romance and sexuality. In a lot of ways it lays a lot of hardness down too,anticipating much of what would happen in the next decade.

Even though a variety of styles are presented this is also in essence a funk/soul album. That has always been George Michael’s true colors when you get right down to it. And on every song here it gives it every single chance he can. Much to the delight of people like me who listen to it. One of a number of excellent AND popular musical moments of 1987!


Faith is an album that painted George Michael as an artist who was not only extremely diverse in his grooves. But also did musical diversity well. And always kept his distinctive flavor intact. His recording career would actually be fairly sporadic after this, as he became involved in elongated record company disputes. And its no lie that George Michael did some amazing albums during the 90’s as well. It hasn’t been a year since his passing yet. And as with Prince, its taking its time feeling real. Yet Faith, with all its energy and high funkativity, is an album that never seems to stop feeling real.

Leave a comment

Filed under George Michael

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let Me See Your ID” by Artists Against Apartheid featuring Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, Duke Bootee and Gil Scott-Heron

Kurtis Blow, starting life in 1959 Harlem as Kurtis Walker, graduating from becoming a student of communications and ministry to becoming the first major hip-hop MC to have a substantial hit with 1980’s disco based rap classic “The Breaks”. He had a string of hits in from the early to late 1980’s. By 1994, he’d become an ordained minister. He was also noted as an early example of hip-hop interpreting itself when Nas made a cover version of Blow’s “If I Ruled The World” in 1996. It was Blow’s strong pro black stance against racism that led him into perhaps the most socially significant projects of his career.

In 1985, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt put together an album project called Artists Against Apartheid, which featured over 50 musicians,singers and rappers in protest against the oppressively racist South African government. Artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and percussionist Ray Buretto signed on. Along with rappers Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow,Duke Bootee,the late Nigerian musician Sonny Okosun and also late iconic jazz/funk poet/singer Gil-Scott Heron got together for a massively topical collaboration from this album “Let Me See Your ID”.

The percussive drum machines and turntabling of the late Jam Master Jay begin this song-with Melle Mell and Blow’s rapping before Miles’s impressionist trumpet textures plays over Gil Scott Heron’s poetic sections of the song. By this point in the song, Miles’ bassist of the time Doug Wimbish throws down some heavy duty funk slap bass. During the bridge of the song, Sonny Okosun sings his own lyrics while the conga’s of Ray Buretto come in and provide an extra rhythmic kick to the song for its final versus and chorus before it all comes to a stop.

“Let Me See Your ID” is one of the most superb early jazz/Afro-pop/hip-hop collaborations of its time. Musically, it showcases how vital heavy rhythm is linking all of these elements together. As for the songs lyrical cause, it has Melle Mell and Kurtis Blow earnestly rapping against racist government systems. Whereas Gil Scott-Heron’s poetic narrations provide his mixture of down home scholarly wit to the lack of knowledge many Americans have of the third world itself-never mind its problems. Its a song that, especially in light of today’s political climate, should be gone back to in a serious way.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Kurtis Blow

Yo! Bum Rush The Show At 30: Public Enemy #1!

Public Enemy have been this largely funk/soul/disco/jazz themed blog’s main reference point when it comes to hip-hop. Of course, that’s largely because of my long history with the band. Not to mention them being one of a handful of key topics between myself and blog consultant Henrique Hopkins. As much as black American music is always a forward thinking and moving creative endeavor, its might be fitting seven months after its official anniversary to explore three decades of American music dealing with the presence of Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show.


Being someone born very directly into the 80’s? My perception of hip-hop (or rap as I’d be inclined to call it at the time) is that there were at least two evolutionary stages in the music before the middle of the decade. There was the late 70’s funk/disco oriented of Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow. And than you had the synth-electro oriented approach of Afrikka Bambaatta’s & The Soul Sonic Force. While Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five straddled both approaches.

Than along came Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam. And the world was introduced to the likes of Run DMC, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Somewhere in that mix? Rap that was overtly sociopolitical hadn’t been greatly represented since the Furious Five’s The Message. Than out of NYC and onto Def Jam came Public Enemy,a hip-hop collective led by turntablist Terminator X and MC’s Flava Flav and group leader Chuck D.

“You’re Gonna Get Yours” starts out the album with a grooving,bass/guitar riff led jam. The song I find most fascinating here is “Sophisticated Bitch”. It is a slow burning groove telling the story of a lady unknowingly prostituting herself-set to the funky rock-guitar riffing solos of Defunkt’s/Black Rock Coalition’s Vernon Reid re-creating the bass riff from Heatwave’s hit “The Groove Line”. “Timebomb” is another extremely hard grooving number.

Interestingly enough,numbers such as “Miuzi Weighs A Ton”,”Too Much Posse”, “Rightstarter”,”Public Enemy#1″,”MPE”,the title song,”Raise The Roof”,”Megablast” and “Terminator X Speaks With His Hands” are all much more in the stripped down,808 drum machine led hip-hop vein Def Jam was championing at the time. What really bought Public Enemy out into the fore was their authoritative rap delivery on the part of everyone,as well as the more aggressive stance of the sound. Which brings me to the main distinctive quality PE had right from the start.

Throughout this album? Chuck D and company were beginning to take a sociopolitical stance that was a bit more direct and specific than anyone in hip-hop had so far. These raps are less narrative stories to illustrate a certain theme. But are more declarations of their motivations. Very much a thematic disciple of Black Power icons such as Malcolm X,Huey Newton and especially musical icon James Brown,Chuck D makes it clear he wants to bring that sense of black empowerment into his type of hip-hop.

On this album? It came off as somewhat implied message wise because PE hadn’t fully developed their distinct musical sound when they were making this album. In a sense because of that? It might be the most important album they made,because it showcased the embryo of a sound that,without the public being fully aware of it coming perhaps,was about to be unleashed by Public Enemy onto the world of hip-hop and music in general.


One of the major points brought up after this Amazon.com review I did four years ago, again with Henrique, was Yo! Bum Rush The Show‘s relationship with the intentions of the Def Jam label’s founders. This occurred in the mid 1980’s, when American pop music charts and MTV were really pushing white rock artists/bands over any music that came from black American culture. That means that, especially with rap/rock crossover’s such as the Beastie Boys and Run DMC’s duet with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, that Russell and Rick desired Def Jam’s style of hip-hop to appeal to a young rock audience.

Public Enemy really changed that perception of Def Jam releases. As with any artist in any genre, their debut did the need for more growth. And as most PE admirers would know, this growth occurred very quickly. The group were at this time a five piece band that included live bass/guitar as well as DJ Terminator X. And also a strong rebirth of the black American political consciousness of the 1960’s that asked black people to take care of themselves as people. This pro black,anti self destruction message illustrated everything that has come to represent Public Enemy in the last 30 years.

Leave a comment

Filed under Public Enemy

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Staring Grandmaster Melle Mel

Melvin Glover,the Bronx native known as Melle Mel,is known today as one of the first MC’s of hip-hop. He teamed up with another hip-hop innovator in the best known early hip-hop DJ Joseph Sadler-known to most as Grandmaster Flash. While they had their first single pressed with 1979’s “Superrappin”. After they moved to Sugar Hill Records shortly thereafter,they found themselves at the mainstay of recorded hip-hop. Which by 1980-81 was still considered largely a live medium-dances in city parks or after hours MC/DJ battles after a night at the discos.

Interestingly enough,it was a member of the Furious Five,Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins,is credited to have first coined the word hip-hop. The term came as a jest to a friend who was about to join the Army- mimicking of the sound soldiers make while marching. Seems pretty apropos as the Furious Five more or less became the first hip-hop army of the recording era. Their biggest (and often best known) contributions to hip-hop came from a record I first heard about in my mid teens. It was the title song to the groups 1982 album release entitled “The Message”.

A delayed drum machine with percussion effects opens the song-as a hi hat effect with lots of echo. That same rhythm sustains itself throughout the song. Addtionally, a pulsing synth brass sound keeps time with the delayed rhythm. At first,its accompanied by a very digitized synthsizer playing a reverbed,psychedelic sound and accompanied by brief rhythm guitar flourishes. After condensing down to the basics of the rhythm and pulsing synth brass,the main musically theme continues-with brief flourishes of synth bursts here and there before the song fades out after just a little over 7 minutes.

What amazed me about “The Message” upon first hearing it is that musically,it was still a straight up electro funk groove. It was sparse,the drum machine and percussion weren’t totally on meter and everything was set up to emphasize Mel’s rapping. The song is best known for being the end of hip-hop’s lyrical obsession with partying and upsmanship-as it presents different character vignettes about the harshness of young black American life in the ghetto during the early 80’s.  The he instrumentation follows Mel’s rap about “trying not to lose my head” in a world of people and music that was totally changing.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Melle Mel

Herbie Hancock & The Rockit Band: The Bill Laswell Years (1983-1988)

Herbie Hancock's Rockit Band Albums

Herbie Hancock, whose turning 77 today, is a musician who has consistently celebrated diversity in his sound. And most importantly, he did so without ever diminishing any sense of ethnic identification. That was particularly significant in his embrace of African percussion styles on his early 70’s Mwandishi trilogy. After his electronic jazz/funk triumphs with the Headhunters and a series of solo albums after,the music tide around Hancock had turned again. Hip-Hop’s emphasis on minimalist beats,turntables and sequencers swam in with that tide by the early 80’s.

After working with Rod Temperton in 1982, Hancock began an affiliation with bass player/producer Bill Laswell. Along with his group Material, Laswell was formulating a musical concept which he referred to as “collision music”. That meant taking unlikely but complimentary musicians, from different genres, and seeing where the sounds would land. Laswell was also a strong jazz funk musician himself-with an avant garde twist. This collision music concept dovetailed beautifully with Hancock’s vision. And the two recorded a trio of albums released in 1983,84 and 88.

Each of these albums showcase the Rockit Band,who also released a concert film with Herbie on VHS tape during this period. These albums were not only the first to bring the jazz/funk sound of the 70’s into the electro/hip-hop age. But they also did so by eventually incorporating elements of different world musics into the mix as well. I’ve done Amazon.com reviews on a couple of these albums. But am going to add some of my own commentary here for this overview of one of Herbie Hancock’s most commercially and creatively vital periods in his long and amazing career.


Future Shock/1983

Between 1980 and 1982,Herbie Hancock found himself in an important transitional phase musically. In 1981 he released the album  Magic Windows,a hardcore contemporary funk album whose final number-the instrumental “The Twilight” clone began the journey to what would inevitably occur on this album. Of course between that was an interesting musical side bar in  Lite Me Up,a pop-funk album very much in the vein of a Qwest type release and featuring such Quincy Jones luminaries as Rod Temperton and the Brother’s Johnson along with vocalist Gavin Christopher.

This made perfect sense with Herbie’s involvement with that group of musicians even earlier on. Few but Herbie could’ve guessed what his next musical move would be. During the earlier part of the decade,a new music was already beginning to emerge from the also gestating hip-hop genre. It was called scratch-very much an improvisational art that utilized turntables in a percussive manner. So Herbie rounded on the high diversified bassist Bill Laswell,leader of the avant garde funk band Material as well as Grandmixer DST on turntable for a shift in musical priorities that would be extremely relevatory. Not only for Herbie but for the music of the 80’s in general.

“Rockit” is of course a scratch icon song of it’s day-the song that altered Herbie Hancock’s entire musical priorities while at the same time maintaining a bluesy jazz melody amid all the vocoder,synthesizers,drum machines and turntabling from DST. “Future Shock”,an elongated version of the Curtis Mayfield 1973 message song from his Back to the World album is the exact opposite of how this album starts and continues-its a pretty clean percussion/Clavinet based funk groove,featuring a Mayfield like falsetto from the very capable vocalist Bernard Fowler,that is something of a contemporary redressing of the sound of the Headhunters.

“TFS” is one of my favorites here-a strong electro funk jam that still mixes in a clavinet and a powerfully melodic acoustic piano solo from Herbie towards the songs end. “Earth Beat” is very much in tune with Laswell’s Asian oriented musical approach-utilizing a lot of samplers and found sounds in rhythmic patterns. “Autodrive” again gets back into the more funky electro groove of the title song,again with a cleaner rhythm while “Rough” builds a heavy drum machine pattern with a very Arabic rhythmic/melodic pattern before going into a megamix bonus track of “Rockit” that includes not only songs from this particular album but also the synthesizer break from Herbie’s 1973 funk breakthrough “Chameleon” from his iconic album [[ASIN:B000002AGP Head Hunters]].

One factor of this album that even I often thought about was the fact that Bill Laswell is a producer/musician often known for an intense musical smothering effect. In short,anything he touches musically becomes almost totally his. That is part of his art though-even though he sometimes gets a bit lost in his musical journey by being a little too eclectic. But one thing that you can say about Herbie Hancock is that he is an artist with a very focused vision.

Whether through the musical filter of DST’s turntabling or Laswell’s playing and production,the album possess funk’s key quality that is even shown in how one tends to dance to it-a quality of controlled looseness. Though some of the pan-international rhythms and melodicism plays into this music,the focus is very much on the groove and the always high quality of Herbie’s own composing ability and musicianship. Of course this album did for him commercially,with “Rockit” especially what Head Hunters had done for him a decade before.

It established Herbie as a fully contemporary artist and even got him some video airplay (even on MTV) with his clever music video for the single. Herbie had made at least one album every year during the 80’s before this came out,most not his best known works and few actually still in print. Yet this stands as his 80’s breakthrough and,although it was by no means a comeback,much of its commercial success might be owed to the fact it somehow  appeared to be.

Sound-System/1984

With the success of Future Shock and its big hit “Rockit”,Herbie had made one significant musical contribution to the 80’s decade: he managed to put an instrumental dance record onto the pop charts and even the music video world. And opened up the door for other musicians such as contemporaries of his such as Jan Hammer to do the same. The following year Herbie was back in the studio with Bill Laswell to record the follow up to that album.

As he was in the early 70’s,Herbie was continually fascinated by how to combine the modern electronic/hip-hop sample/scratch oriented effects that interested him with the heavily Afrocentric variety of funk. Again on the heels of another possible cultural innovation,Herbie bought in the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso,who played an electrified African string instrument called the Kora,which produced a reverb laden Harp-like effect. This would have the effect of extending even further on the musical revelations he’d made on his previous album.

“Hard Rock”,”Metal Beat” and the closing title track are all very much in line with the approach of “Rockit”,but the instrumental sound is very different. The rhythmic patterns,keyboard parts and the addition of the Kora on the title song especially infuse these songs with an enormous Afro-Latin quality about them-which draws out the expansiveness of the groove and manage to make the electronics of it seem totally non-rigid.

“Karabali” has almost no relation to these songs at all-its an almost totally African,almost Cameroonian Makossa beat type number built heavily around Suso’s Kora. “Junku” perfectly blends the tight and danceable electro-funk sound of Herbie’s with the same Kora sound. Bernard Fowler returns for another vocal number in the bluesy funk of “People Are Changing”,very much a generational cautionary take where Herbie delights on both synthesizer and acoustic piano alternately. The bonus track is an extended version of “Metal Beat”,which draws out the African percussion element even more.

Something tells me this album didn’t resonate with the public the same as its predecessor had. And it isn’t because the album is too repetitious of it. It actually isn’t at all. But the basis for all of the songs on this album are African oriented drum patters and different rhythmic ideas-with anything American blues based rarely being showcased. While this album is chocked full of massively grooving break dance friendly electro funk,the basis for it isn’t particularly American it all.

It takes the heavy Afro-Latin influence of the previous album to a whole other level in fact. In many ways,that makes this one of Herbie’s best albums of the 80’s as the music is extremely close to his heart in the sense of being technically futurist yet rhythmically grounded in the tradition of the Earth itself. Manu DiBango himself could extend on the sound from his album in particular on his own release from the following year Electric Africa. As for this,Herbie may very well have sparked the public’s interest in Africa and African musical rhythms during the mid 1980’s. So again Herbie himself gained some success for himself while being a trailblazer.

Perfect Machine/1988

By the time this final album from the Rockit band was released, Herbie Hancock had already recorded a live album with Foday Musa Suso entitled Village Life,which was released in 1985. He’d also contributed to the Dexter Gordon staring film ‘Round Midnight a year or so after this. Along for the ride with Laswell and the Rockit Band were Ohio Players lead singer/guitarist Leroy Sugerfoot Bonner and P-Funk innovator Bootsy Collins with his space base. Both funk veterans were than making comebacks. And Hancock really helped them along on this album too.

The open title track and the closing “Chemical Residue” adds a pronounced Asian pentatonic scale type melody and sound (often used by “neo geo” dance music icon Ryuichi Sakamoto) mixed in with the electro/hip-hop rhythms. “Obsession”,”Beat Wise” and the highly successful “Vibe Alive” all feature Bootsy and Sugarfoot’s well oiled funkiness into Herbie and Laswell’s grooves with near perfection. A remake of “Maiden Voyage” with the new composition “P.Bop” puts the original melody into that digitized grooves. And really bring out the melody and rhythm together in one vital place.

Perfect Machine may actually be the most funk and soul based of the three Bill Laswell albums. The Asian twist to some of the melodies continues the tradition of the 1980’s proving Duke Ellington’s musical theory very correct: that American culture overall was taking on more and more Asian style overtones to it. Each of the Rockit Band era Herbie Hancock albums explored the electro/hip-hop style of jazz-funk with an abundance of musical ideas. And this album represents a fine closer to this particular period of Hancock’s artistry.


One of the interesting things about the Rockit Band period of Herbie Hancock’s career is that, although it took place during my childhood in the 80’s, it was dancing around the living room with my father to Hancock’s 1973 funk remake of “Watermelon Man” that represented my first exposure to his music. Perhaps its an odd jumping in point. But upon hearing tunes such as “Rockit” and “Hard Rock” in the mid 80’s,it made clear how much breadth Hancock’s music had. Always wondered what came between 1973 and 1983 with his music. And was very happy to discover it over a decade later.

The Herbie Hancock/Bill Laswell collaboration actually marked the first time where Hancock was actually hitting on an innovative approach before his mentor Miles Davis did. By no means to imply any competitiveness between the two. But its interesting to wonder if Hancock’s earlier in the game hip-hop/jazz innovations didn’t inspire Miles with his posthumous Doo Bop album in 1993. At any rate,what Hancock,Laswell and the Rockit Band did on these albums did open the door for later jazz-funk hybrids. And represent how the younger generations of today generally remember Herbie Hancock.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Herbie Hancock

Clyde Stubblefield,Thank You For Laying The Foundation

Related image

Clyde Stubblefield,born in Chattanooga Tennessee in  1943,became interested in music based on his interest in the rhythms of the factories and trains around him. This is a fitting legacy for a man who,in 1967,would be asked along with fellow JB drummer John “Jabo” Starks to “make the entire band sound like a drum”. Everything from the shuffling rhythms of hip-hop and new jack swing,along with the stripped down rhythms of modern electronica,come directly from Mister Stubblefield.  Sadly,one of the most sampled drummers in music history passed of kidney failure on February 18th,2017.

I first learned the name of Stubblefield from a wonderful documentary on sampling entitled Copyright Criminals. Stubblefield was a participant-playing and discussing his famous drum break from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. The man said he wasn’t particularly concerned with money in regard to sampling his drum break. But just credit for it. Even Rolling Stone magazine,who often snub the influence of funk/soul musicians,named Stubblefield their drummer of the year in 1990. This began a series of accolades to a musician who I’m about to discuss the reason why he’s so revered.

Stubblefield’s approach to drumming,from “Cold Sweat” through “Funky Drummer” is based on playing a series of unusual syncopation’s with a light touch on his drums. This technique has been referred to as playing “ghost notes”. Its something a lot easier to hear and dance to than it is to explain with the written word. Speaking personally,it was a sound that myself (and I’m sure many others) knew extremely well before we even heard of Clyde Stubblefield. Even though he and James Brown are not with us anymore,their approach to music can never be extinguished from existence.

The saddest thing about Stubblefield is that his latter day health problems had him falling victim to the syndrome of a lot of elder musicians. Without record company residuals or health insurance for support,his medical bills ended up coming from other musical benefactors. Prince (who passed away last year) was a major one. Considering Stubblefield his idol as a drummer,he donated $80,000 to help pay his medical bills. So in terms of both his music and healthcare,Clyde Stubblefield’s legacy seemed to bring out the best in other musicians in terms of preserving his creative legacy.

2 Comments

Filed under Clyde Stubblefield

Looking Back at Public Enemy’s Underrated New Whirl Odor

new-whirl-odor-cover

Next Friday marks the 30th anniversary of Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the debut album by legendary political hip-hop crew Public Enemy. I have a post planned for both Andresmusictalk and my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, to mark the occasion; but in the meantime, I thought I’d dig up a post I wrote back in 2005 about their surprisingly good album from that year, New Whirl Odor. As I note below, 2005 was at least 10 years past what anyone would consider P.E.’s “prime”; but the fact that it still turned out to be pretty great is a testament to their continued vitality and relevance. Here’s hoping they can continue to surprise us in the next 30 years.

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D is 56 years old. That’s only two years younger than my father… my father, whose favorite band is the Traveling Wilburys. This, of course, brings up all the usual questions about relevance and staying power: questions that are perhaps even more potent when applied to a rap group who made their reputation as a thoroughly of-the-moment firebrand “CNN of the black community.” But listening to New Whirl Odor–Public Enemy’s ninth album in their almost-30-year career–and reading some of the early press reactions, I’m a lot more interested in a different question: namely, when are we going to stop demanding another Nation of Millions from Public Enemy?

After all, it’s more than evident that Chuck and company couldn’t care less about recapturing their “golden era”: if Odor is stuck in any time period, it isn’t the late ’80s or even the early ’90s, but 1994, the year PE released their hugely misunderstood fifth album, Muse Sick-N-Our Mess Age. From the punning title and hand-drawn cover art to the Bomb Squad-free, live-instrumentation arrangements, Odor is a sister album of sorts to Muse Sick–and a worthy follow-up at that. But just like that earlier album, it’s unlikely that anyone will be listening until years down the line. Put simply, this was–and remains–a different group altogether from the one that recorded “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” The sound is mellower, atmospheric, almost minimalist; nothing like the dense sonic barrage that peaked on 1990′s Fear of a Black Planet. There’s nothing here with quite the instantaneous impact of, say, “You’re Gonna Get Yours.” In fact, unlike that seminal 1987 cut, which literally revved to life in a blur of gunning engine and squealing tires, New Whirl Odor’s title track drops in with an insistent, low-in-the-mix beat and almost subliminal swirling keyboards. Is it classic P.E.? Hardly; no song operating on wordplay that terrible ought to be considered “classic” anything. But excitement? Is any Public Enemy track not exciting?

 

What follows, I’m happy to say, is even better. “Bring That Beat Back” is the kind of thing the S1Ws were born to step to: the sound of mainstream hip-hop being marched to the gallows. “Preachin’ to the Quiet” blends live guitar with a laid-back jazz-funk loop and some truly frenetic scratching. And “MKLVFKWR” just plain kicks ass, as musically engaging as “Welcome to the Terrordome” with none of the overly defensive, anti-Semitic bravado. The Enemy is in fine form throughout: Chuck’s voice is as hefty of timbre as ever, but delivered with a restraint that becomes him, high on confidence and only a little lower on boom. Even Professor Griff takes the mic to great effect on tracks like the ambient, reggae-flavored “Revolution” and the tense, jerky “Y’all Don’t Know.” Flav, perhaps for the best, is kept largely out of the spotlight, but provides color and support with his usual panache.

Of course there are a few missteps. “66.6 Strikes Again” needlessly rehashes the cut-and-paste radio skit of Black Planet with diminishing returns, while the abysmal “What a Fool Believes” is not only the worst Public Enemy song I’ve ever heard, but one of the worst rap songs–and probably up there on the list of worst songs in general. Harsh words, I know, but to Public Enemy’s credit, New Whirl Odor’s highs far outnumber its lows… and even the lows speak to this group’s continuing vitality, their willingness to take risks. Closing track “Superman is Black in the Building” (above) stands as a testament to this: nearly twelve minutes long and not a second wasted, it’s at once an epic recap of everything that continues to make Public Enemy great, and a bold excursion into new heights of jazz-flavored funk and soul. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think twice about writing off these hip-hop elder statesmen, even if their “glory days” have long past. Because like it or not, Public Enemy doesn’t need to make another Nation of Millions. They’ve already made their first New Whirl Odor, and that’s plenty good enough.

1 Comment

Filed under 2000s, 2005, Chuck D, conscious rap, Hip-Hop, Public Enemy, rap, Uncategorized

Prince Summer In Full Swing: ’20Ten’ turns 6!

20ten

20Ten is one of my favorite Prince albums of the new millennium before his 2014 comeback on Warner Brothers. Questlove wrote an article in Wax Poetics magazine five years ago about the 33 reasons why Prince was hip-hop. The 20Ten album provided a possible 34th reason-that being most contemporary hip-hop/R&B music with it’s stripped down drum machine/synthesizer sound is based on the same early/mid 80’s Minneapolis sound that Prince pioneered,and then returned to with this album. This is also one of very very few times I saw Prince return to the musical sound that made him so famous.

This was a difficult album for me to find. It was released shortly after Prince received a Lifetime Achievement Aware at the 2010 BET Awards. But in the UK only. And even for that as a covermount CD on British magazines like the Daily Mirror. My local record store Bullmoose would’ve had to ordered the magazines themselves to even sell copies of this. And that seems that they did because I managed to pick it up. After jamming to the first album a couple of times during that first week of having it,I went over to Amazon.com and had the following to say about it:


On his previous release Mplsound Prince was making it abundantly clear that he was reaching towards his classic one-man-band Minneapolis sound as a means of progressing into the future. This is actually a move he made on a number of occasions when his music and career seemed in question. Well right now his career isn’t in that state at all. He’s musically revered by many in this generation and was recently given a tribute on the BET Music Awards this past year. Prince himself also seems to obsessed with some strange form of eternal youth in which his music doesn’t age but his lyrical themes mature.

You will not find any explicit lyrics on this album for sure,same as you won’t find them on any of his albums since 2001. That doesn’t mean that effects the music at all because these are the most energized,lively,funky and musically sophisticated songs Prince has done in the new millennium. The album opens and ends on the same basic musical note with “Compassion” and “Everybody Loves Me” embracing the shuffling LINN drum led rockabilly styled funk with lyrics that alternately speak of both selflessness and selfishness. “Beginning Endlessly”,the amazing “Sticky Like Glue” and “Lavaux” all embrace the classic Prince all encompassing funk groove with some delicious synthesizer squiggles and layered drum and percussion tracks.

He hasn’t lost his touch as a multi instrumentalist in the least bit and actually has expanded on it to include light rhythmic nods to both hip-hop/R&B and contemporary 80’s dance revival (itself based on his own original music) without shamelessly surrendering to either style and still being himself. Songs like “Future Love Song”,”Walk In The Sand” and “Sea Of Everything” also embrace Prince’s touch with the slow jam to it’s absolute best effect. Typical of Prince he makes you flip through 75 separate 2-4 second empty tracks before we get to cut 77,which is the title song offered as a very hidden bonus selection. This is very much a TAFKAP era sounding funk/rap styled number but still his one-man-band style is very much in attendence. After all these years Prince obviously has no intent on being a fossil. He wants to keep being himself and now that he’s in his 50’s he also refuses to musically look down on those younger than them and also embraces many of their ideas into his own.


The summer season is already a few weeks in as I’m writing this. But wanted to officially inaugurate this as Prince Summer here on Andresmusictalk. It’s been underway for a few months now already. But there will continue to be a consistent emphasis on Prince’s own music here for a long time to come-as well as a continuing emphasis on the enormous influence of the many forms of the Minneapolis sound. Even if Prince himself didn’t always realize it,he is likely the last artist to really innovate musically in the funk/soul genre. And the album 20Ten is more than solid proof of this.

4 Comments

Filed under 2010's, Amazon.com, funk albums, Hip-Hop, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Music Reviewing, Prince, Questlove, synth brass, synthesizers, UK, Uncategorized, Wax Poetics magazine

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Funky Drummer” by James Brown & The JB’s

James Brown’s grooves importance to me is that they came to me pretty late in the game. That is in terms of discovering funk. Long before that happened on a personal level,the discovery of The Godfather within the newly emerging musical genre of hip-hop came at the same time as the advent of the computer sound sampler. Public Enemy’s Bombsquad made samples of JB’s music a mainstay in their rhythmic based sound. While I feel it important for the funk to always remain it’s own reward,JB’s music in particular would probably not be so well known to so many American’s between the ages of 20-50 without the funk archive that is sampling.

There are many JB numbers that remain a key part of the vocabulary of the samples library. One of them however remains key. It was recorded on November 20th,1969. And was released as a single five months later. Originally it was released at a two part single version-each of the parts less then three minutes a piece. When I first heard the full version on the JB box set Star Time,it made little impact on my ears or me feet. After coming back to it over a decade later,it became clear how much an understanding of JB’s rhythmic intent opened this song right up. And the name of of this important groove is called “Funky Drummer”.

The trumpets of Joe Davis and Richard Kush Griffith both play right on the beat with the songs own funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield. The main groove of the song is a vamp based on Stubblefield hitting the snare high on the second or third beat-depending on where Kush,Fred Wesley,Maceo Parker and the rest of the JB horn section happened to be hitting on the groove from. Of course Jimmy Nolan’s trademark chicken scratch guitar locks it all down along Charles Sherrell’s busy,jazzy bass line. JB plays a number of organ solos-starting short and ending more elaborately near the end of the groove while sharing a space for Maceo to solo too.

Of course what really gets it going is when JB calls out  Stubblefield solo with just his snare-on-the-one beat twice in the groove. That’s the part that became the nucleus of the hip-hop beat during the sampling age. As it’s own groove,”Funky Drummer” is a straight vamp without any long musical breaks or changes in melody. In a lot of ways,it almost stands as pretty raw funk material from the JB’s. What keeps it so fresh and exciting is the amazing musical precision involved. This is probably where JB himself might’ve fully succeeded in his ambition to get his entire band to sound like a drum. And that will probably continue to remain this songs legacy in the anatomy of the funk groove.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, Charles Sherrell, chicken scratch guitar, Clyde Stubblefield, drums, Fred Wesley, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, horns, James Brown, Jimmy Nolan, Maceo Parker, organ, Richard Kush Griffith, Sampling, Saxophone, The JB's

People Music: The Soulful Evolution Of Sound For African America

People Music is a term Henrique and myself often use to describe message songs recorded during the soul/funk generational cycle-specifically by black artists. Political and creative liberation was a key factor in this too. It was my father,however who inspired me to write this by asking me what the most significant song was during the 50’s and 60’s civil rights movement. The most obvious choice for that was “People Get Ready” by The Impressions. Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Curtis Mayfield was an early champion for black musicians to have creative and business control of their art. And this 1965 ballad became a huge anthem for the movement as a whole.

As the 60’s progressed,the civil rights movement seeking racial equality evolved into a concept that assumed equality of person. Especially the idea that Afrocentric qualities were beautiful and must be appreciated as such. This became known as the black power movement. The completely rhythm based genre of funk developed during this time as well. As Henrique pointed out,funk continued to be the soundtrack to the black power movement well into the 1970’s. James Brown,who laid the foundation for funk, also recorded the genres earliest and most enduring anthem for racial empowerment entitled “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)”.

The 70’s funk era was chocked full of message songs. All of them reflected ideas that derived from the NOI and Black Panther Party from the mid/late 60’s that black American’s required a more positive understanding of themselves and their futures. 1974 was a year that dashed a lot of the 60’s hopes in general-especially for black Americans. Still funk and it’s tributaries through jazz,soul and rock music was at it’s strongest point. Even during the post Watergate recession. The poet/singer Gil Scott Heron,who five years earlier had given us the black power anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” offered up this 1974 song in reflection of a potent present but less certain tomorrow.

Hip-hop’s presence as a commercially successful entity wasn’t yet four years old when The Furious Five released what is very likely the beginning of what is known today as conscious rap. Musically based in the synthesizer based electro funk of the period,this song found Grandmaster Melle Mel dealing directly with the state of affairs of urban black America during the early years of the Reagan administration. The song takes the futuristic sounding electronic grooves and mixes in tales of urban decay and neglect. Of particular note is Melle Mel stating “don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/it’s like a jungle sometimes/it’s a wonder how I keep from going under”.

Though theoretically released at the end of the previous decade,Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” did some very significant things for black message songs at the head start of the 1990’s. It established hip-hop as a major archival medium for funk,in particular James Brown’s,through the use of electronic sampling. Not only that but the realization Chuck D and company had that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp” showcased an empowering message for black Generation Xers as to just how much misrepresentation black American’s had to deal with over the centuries. And also by offering them a direct call to get involved and “fight the powers that be”.

Message songs within the black community seemed to disappear (or go totally underground) during the post 9/11 years. They were replaced by either reactionary (and often racist) patriotic anthems or simply musical silence. Suddenly a couple of years ago,longtime hip-hop/soul producer and singer Pharrell Williams emerged with “Happy”. Musically it hearkened back to the stripped down soul jazz trio sound of the mid 60’s. While it’s message was very all encompassing-asking the listener to “clap your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth”,it did open the door for black American artists to deliver new political anthems in music that were even more direct.

As I write this article,Beyonce’s performance of her newest song “Foundation” at the Superbowl,a strong pro black anthem, is generating similar controversies as were bought up during the height of the Black Panther Party and the black power movement in general. So the mid/late 2010’s are seeing black American message songs leap back into life in a huge way. Even though many people today are convinced no piece of music has any power to change the world,looking back on this history in the context of what is happening right now proves otherwise. That when it comes to being black in America, musical art is always at the forefront of the political.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2010's, Curtis Mayfield, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Hip-Hop, James Brown, message music, message songs, Pharrell Willaims, Public Enemy, Sampling, Soul, soul jazz, The Furious Five, Uncategorized