Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.
Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.
A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.
“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, ARP string ensemble, Chuck Rainey, Donald Byrd, drums, Fonce Mizell, Funk Bass, Gary Bartz, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, organ, Saxophone, trumpet
Erykah Abi Wright,better known as Erykah Badu is going to be 45 years old today. One of the major events of the late 1990’s was when her debut album Baduism debuted. Her songs from this album were all over college radio-bringing her mixture of Afrocentric jazzy funk oriented neo soul into a community where such a thing hadn’t been heard for quite sometime. It would be some years later before I started digging deeper into her albums as a whole. Each of them is like a well made motion picture. Every time ones listens,it’s possible to receive something totally new from the audio experience. That quality has made her one of the more modern artists I’ve enjoyed.
In 2008 Badu launched her first in a series of albums entitled New Amerykah. As of this date,I am unsure if she will be continuing this loose series. But in 2010 she released her second album in the series,which was subtitled Return Of The Ankh. At the time,I remember far preferring the musical sound of this second album in the series. As a person who spent much of their 20’s listening to jazz/funk/fusion,the fact that Madlib and bassist Thundercat were present on this album probably has a lot to do with that appeal. Still there was one song on the album that leaped out at me from the moment I heard it. It’s called “Gone Baby,Don’t Be Long”.
The song begins with a slow drum rhythm using a heavy percussive trap,after which a two note rhythm guitar inaugurates the song. The entire song is based on this rhythm groove repeating over and over with a soulful,male vocal choir harmony sound. Badu’s chocked,slowly phrased vocal delivery offers a complete melodic counterpoint to the rhythmic body of the song itself. As the song progresses, a sea of different Erykah Badu’s mixing in multiple tracks of her own backup vocals chimes in. And the song grows more and more built around different variations of it’s own chorus-all before it finally all fades out.
It was only this past week did I realize that Madlib,one of my very favorite sample based producers was responsible for this track. He is always seeking out bass/guitar oriented rhythmic lines that are fluid and melodic at the same time.In this case,he sampled the relatively obscure late in the game Paul McCartney and Wings hit “Arrow Through Me” from 1979. The original’s disco friendly reggae/funk vibe is explored here by looping the chorus following it’s bridge as a musical theme for Badu to add her more jazz/funk vocal styling’s into. It’s not only a high water mark for Erykah Badu’s creativity,but for Madlib’s inventive understanding of jazz/funk loops and samples as instrumental elements.
It was actually Issue 61 of Wax Poetics magazine that made me aware of the existence of this duo. During the first half decade of the 2010’s? It would seem as if funk,especially it’s analog synthesizer oriented cousin known as boogie,has been rediscovered as a vital template for contemporary soul, electronic, pop and hip-hop artists. And it’s really been healthy for instrumentalists in particular. And happily it’s emerged again from a source that has been drawn to it for over two decades at this point.
Stone Throw Records has really upped the ante in terms of celebrating live instrumental hip-hop and it’s offshoots. From the days of Peanut Butter Wolf,through the late J Dilla and Madlib. This was the beginning of hip-hop’s journey around to straight up funk again. Now Tuxedo has emerged from this brew. Staring the musical talents of Seattle native Jake One,producer for contemporary rappers such as Drake and Rick Ro$$ along with singer/songwriter Mayer Hawthorne? The duo have come out with a self titled album including songs such as “So Good” here.
Starting off with an insistent percussion accented drum beat out of the “Billie Jean”/”Ghetto Life” early 80’s “naked funk” school? A phat bass synth opens the door for a sharp,punchy and higher pitched melodic synthesizer. Both of these analog synthesizers dance and bounce rhythmically to the slow dragging funky drum of the song. This provides the musical core for Hawthorne’s vocals-assisted by an alarm like “video game” counter melodic line. A bridge of the song cuts out the bass synth and concentrates on the melodic one as an orchestral element-returning to the original electronic duet to the closeout of the song-with Hawthorne harmonizing with his own back-round vocals.
One of the things that I appreciate about this song is that it showcases the meatiest possible elements of boogie/electro funk. Jake One seems to possess a keen understanding of how much that style of funk and first generation commercial hip-hop of the early 80’s went hand and hand. The tongue in cheek video,recorded on VHS tape cable access style showcases Hawthorne,Jake One and the band performing the song in an expressionless manner. The actual song expresses a great sense of warmth and vitality in it’s melodic ideas-which lies in contrast to the loping rhythmic funk stomp underneath it all. A powerful example of modern day hard electro/boogie based synth funk.
Filed under 2015, Billie Jean, Boogie Funk, electro funk, funk revival, Hip-Hop, J Dilla, Jake One, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, Peanut Butter Wolf, Stone Throw Records, synth funk, Wax Poetics magazine
One key musical inspiration for my part in this blog was when my blogging partner introduced me to the singer/songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow several years ago. Her music was presented as an example of a jazz oriented vocalist operating in the modern idiom-someone rather in the Erykah Badu vein,only someone celebrating her own type of musical clarity. Since that time? I’ve been searching out Muldrow’s new music as it comes out. And it does so in many different ways: under her own name,as part of different jazz/hip-hop groups or with her rapper husband Dudley Perkins.
Three years ago,it came to my knowledge that Muldrow was going to be making a collaborative album with Madlib,one of the key artists on Stone Throw Records along with the late J Dilla. Since this was in a way a creative inspiration to what Muldrow and Perkins have done with their someothashipCONNECT label? It only seemed appropriate that she would become involved with one of the people who was the architect of the musical movement she embraced: hip-hop era artists seeking to create jazzy funk music with what they had available to them. The best examples on Muldrow’s and Madlib’s collaboration entitled Seeds,at least for me anyway,is a song called “Best Love”.
The song starts right out with a slow grinding loop of a boogie funk number that has a sparkling high keyboard melody,a smooth jazzy guitar line and a big thick,chunky slap bass leading it along. Considering my inability to effectively gauge every sample I hear? It could be from Slave,Breakwater or any number of funk/boogie artists from the late 70’s/early 80’s. However instead of the sample being tied together with scratching,rappers and other commercial hip-hop cliches? The music simply repeats itself in the manner of a regular song. It’s my personal favorite variety of hip-hop production. And Georgia Anne’s lyrical message,applying an individual act of love and sensuality as being a positive emotion to bring peace to humanity showcases her strong thematic connection to the prime years of the funk era.
One thing that Rique and I have commonly discussed is how funk can be found in any aisle of the record store. Sure most anything can be played in a funky way. But that instrumental cleanliness so important in funk music itself defines any different genre that actually functions as funk. Whether it be rock functioning as funk,disco functioning as funk or electronica functioning as funk. Though hip-hop is directly related to funk? It’s use of funk samples is often featured in a more archival manner,not always focusing in on the funk itself and more on rhythm elements of it. This song showcases the Madlib approach of allowing the funk sample to function as what it is and adds Georgia Anne Muldrow’s thick,jazz inspired vocals and melody in and around it. And therefore creates a new sample based variation of futurist funk for the world!
He’s been called The Beat Conductor,The Loopdigga,Quasimoto,DJ Lord Such,his own name Otis Jackson Jr,Yesterday’s New Quintet. But whatever name he chooses,Madlib is someone who crosses the barriers between two sources of musical information in my life: my friend Henrique and my father. It was my father who first started introducing me to Madlib when he shared a mutual interest with keyboardist/then local DJ Nigel Hall in his Shades of Blue and fascination with Mizell brothers period Donald Byrd. So each time a new Madlib CD came out,my father got it and we listened to it on the way home from the record store. Hearing all the layers of 70’s and 80’s soul/funk/jazz-funk samples in his music? Madlib really began to call to mind Henrique’s discussions with me about hip-hop being an important archival music for the funk,jazz and soul music that moves both of us. When this album was originally released earlier this year featuring the rapping of Freddie Gibbs? I had a feeling an album like this would follow from Madlib himself. This was what I wanted to hear. And what a thrill it is too!
With “Scarface” as the orchestral opener the album goes into the slow crawling cinematic oriented soul break of “Deeper-after which comes the the call-and-response clavinet based melodic funk of “High”-featuring the lyric “I get high” which slows down to a crawl by songs end. “Harold”,with its jazz guitar solo and “Bomb” with its symphonic electric pianos and keyboards are both deep,spare funk pieces. “S**tsville” and “Thuggin” are both beautifully dramatic pieces based on keyboard and guitar oriented orchestral soul-with the mildly classical twist a Stevie Wonder or David Sancious might add to the mix. “Real” and “Uno” are very spare pieces-more designed to focus on an MC than the music itself. “Robes” on the other hand is a melodically soulful jazz type number a beautiful female vocal looped in and out of the mix. “Broken”,”Lakers”,”Shame” and “Knicks”,the later with a male soulful vocal moan loop are all beautifully orchestrated,piano based Thom Bell style early 70’s soul ballads. The album continues on with the horn oriented intro “Watts” before going into “Pinata”-an early 70’s sitar led slow groove with the organ solo repeating again with the string refrain breaking it up now and again.
As someone who was never at all part of any aspect of hip-hop culture from the inside? I’ve had to observe the genre from without. And though I greatly admire the rapping abilities and lyrical statements of people such as The Roots’ Black Thought,Chuck D and KRS One? There are many times when certain MC’s,especially those of the more braggadocio and profane variety,to be highly distracting to the often fascinating music that is often taking place around them. Therefore the instrumental hip-hop of artists like Madlib always interest me. Since the man is obviously far,far more versed in the soul/funk spectrum than I? Have to admit I am not 100% aware of most of the artists he loops and samples in his music unless specifically indicated. But still the fact that many rap superstars give the impression that hip-hop is all about personality and not music tends to make many people forget that their is a very strong musical art form at the very core of hip-hop. Its part of the DJ based culture that rose out of the disco era. And since that mid/late 70’s era is Madlib’s favorite period to draw inspiration from? I personally champion him as a strong modern purveyor of the thoroughly music end of the hip-hop genre. And that is why I chose the instrumental version of this,as opposed to the one with Freddie Gibbs as MC. Either way,this is impressive funky soul loops,breaks and cinematic grooving delights!
*Here is the original Amazon.com review: