Tag Archives: music with a message

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.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sneak You In” by Bassel & The Supernaturals

Funk represents quite a lot more than just music. The elements of jazz,rock and soul within it expresses the 60’s era social changes that became more mainstream in the 70’s. Bassel & The Supernaturals are a superb modern example of this. Bassel Almadani, the bands lead singer and (from what I can see) founder, is a Syrian American who sees the Supernaturals’ jazz/funk/neo soul sound as holding an ethnic and social identification with the the immigrant refugee issues that are now becoming a major problem for the world. This is refreshing when so many no longer feel that music can change society.

I found out about Bassel & The Supernaturals this past Monday via local community radio station WERU’s night time funk/soul/jazz show Upfront Soul,hosted by a DJ who calls herself Sanguine Fromage. WERU often plays artists with progressive political causes to push forward. And Bassel & The Supernaturals are involved with nationally-acclaimed SXSW showcase ContraBanned: #MusicUnites- which showcases musicians from the diaspora of the countries targeted by Donald Trump’s travel ban. The song I remember Sanguine Fromage playing by them is called “Sneak You In”.

A swinging shuffle starts out the song-with a glistening electric piano and wah wah guitar in unison with a bouncing,equally shuffling slap bass line. The represents of the refrains of the song-each of which caps up with a hi hat heavy breakdown at the end. Horn charts accent the melody at its strongest points within every aspect of the song. The refrain builds,grows and changes in chord progression-in between two bridges that showcase more percussive drum fills and a jangling Latin rhythm guitar solo. The second such bridge builds up to a horn filled outro that drum brushes the song to a close.

“Sneak You In” has a rhythmic and melodic structure that brings to mind the neo soul friendly jazz/funk song structures of musicians such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. Bassel has a beautiful,clear vocal style that relies on sustained phrases and controlled pauses. Conveys a lot of emotion along with the instrumentation’s probing, exploratory groove. In this song, Bassel sings of romantic love as a source of strength. And in the most poetic manner I can imagine. From hearing this, Bassel & The Supernaturals have the potential to be a leading voice in present day jazz/funk.

*You can download Bassel & The Destroyers full length debut Elements here. Every donation to purchase this download from $10 or above goes to the Karam Foundation’s humanitarian efforts for Syrian families. Including the family of Bassel Almadani. https://www.basselmusic.com/store/

*More about the Karam Foundation here: https://www.karamfoundation.org/

 

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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.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Music’s Takin’ Over” by The Jacksons

Goin’ Places, The Jacksons’ second on CBS/Epic records is (as are most things Jackson related) as being a commercial failure. But creatively,it was a totally opposite matter. Its an album celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year so I’ll cover it in further detail at that time. For one reason though,I wanted to go deeper into some of the individual songs from this album over the course of the year because many of them just stand out on their own merit. And one in particular,because its so in keeping with the Jacksons’ overall creative/sociopolitical ethic.

Upon leaving Motown, The Jackson’s fell under the production of Philadelphia International Records. Goin’ Places had more of a steady musical direction to it as an album than their self titled debut from a year earlier. And it all pointed towards the fact that the brothers were finding their freedom as a group. And for Michael Jackson,his freedom on his own a couple of years later-under the direction of Quincy Jones. And it all began with a song that I first heard opening up the CD of this album 24 years ago this year entitled “Music’s Takin’ Over”.

Tito’s crunchy rhythm guitar,a rolling and grooving bass line and the drum/percussion of Charles Collins and (likely) Randy Jackson provide the intro-along with a deep hollow guitar part that goes into the first refrain of the song. Each refrain of the song consists of a fluid 10 note rhythm guitar,the same slippery groove of a bass line,a steady rhythm and accenting horn charts. On the choruses, the guitar/bass/horn interaction is sustained with the vocal hook. After a bridge consisting of an extension of the intro,there’s a brief conga based take on the refrain before the main version fades out the song.

“Music’s Takin Over” is an excellent example of a sharp funk number arranged to sophisticated sleekness. This McFadden & Whitehead (with Victor Carstarphen)  really develops from the rhythm out to the melody,as high quality funk should. Lyrically,it is an enthusiastic celebration of the post 60’s outlook on music. In our time of attitudes asserting that “music could and can never change the world”,Michael Jackson’s earnest assertion of “music is a doctor that can cure a troubled mind” still burns with the emotional and physical reality of music I personally happen to follow.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sing A Song” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire really came into its own when adding New Orleans born guitarist Al McKay in 1973 for their fourth album Head To The Sky. As Verdine White himself put it, McKay was already well known among musicians for his work with Sammy Davis Jr. and the Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band by the time he joined EWF. This all came together to allow McKay to bring the strong pop element Maurice White was looking for. Al McKay was also another rhythm kind in the band. And that made brought him into close musical interplay with Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson.

McKay left EWF in 1980 following the release of their album Faces. By that point,McKay had already co-written at least two of the bands classic hit songs. One of them came from a guitar riff that Maurice White overheard McKay working on,so the story goes. And he felt the entire band should build a song around it. The song ended up being included as one of a handful of new studio tracks on EWF’s mostly live album Gratitude  from late 1975. Its one of those EWF songs that most people know by heart,and that includes myself. The name of it is “Sing A Song”.

An eight note bass/guitar interplay countdown opens the song. Than McKay’s main riff comes in-a thick a busy bubbling melody with Verdine scaling upwards on bass right next to him. The upbeat,sunny drums and the Phenix horns accent these instrumental parts. The Phenix horns do exactly the same thing for the vocal exchanges between Maurice White and Philip Bailey on the refrains. On the chorus,Larry Dunn’s Moog plays a variation of Verdine’s bass line. On the final chorus,Maurice and Phillip sing the breakdown together before an electric piano,the Moog bass and Phenix horns fade it all out.

Everything about this song literally seems to be singing. The Phenix horns with their brassy vibrato and Al McKay’s liquid rhythm guitar throughout this song give it an enormous vocal quality along with Maurice White and Phillip Bailey. The rhythms and bright melodies have some of the “united funk” era’s heaviest sense of gospel style joyousness to it. Having known a lot of people who’ve complained the lack of “genuine emotion” in music,this song takes the cake in terms of true happiness,and the power of music during the 70’s funk era to get to you sing a song to make your day.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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

Anatomy of THE Groove 7/18/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Love Unleashed” By Joe

As long as we’ve known each other,the one common thread that my blogging partner Henrique and I have referenced is the rather emasculated attitude soul singer/songwriter Joe Thomas,mostly known simply as Joe,has regarding the romantic subjects of his songs. Not that he is any innovator or even the only artist of his kind with this sort of attitude or anything. But it was bought up in reference to the fact that,aside from lyrical content,the vast majority of his music simply wasn’t possessed of a great deal of instrumental vitality. Of course, instrumentalists with a strong sense of vitality were not exactly showcased very strongly on the commercial end of the soul/R&B spectrum of the mid/late 90’s in which Joe began his career either. About a month ago,Joe released a new album entitled ‘Bridges’. Aside from the albums many very surprising delights? It concludes with what I feel to be it’s most surprising ones-a song called “Love Undefeated”.

Starting off with an authoritative drum kick similar in flavor to Funadelic’s iconic “(Not Just) Knee Deep) before kicking right into a think “funk functioning as disco-dance music” type percussive rhythm with a thick,pulsing three chord bass tone matched up with an electric piano/clavinet sounding interaction for the keyboard part. Shortly after a string synthesizer brings in the melody and these joyous,harmonic horn charts come in and stay with the song throughout it. Along with some extremely James Brown/Prince type rhythmic guitar as well. Lyrically Joe sings a message to his brothers and sisters in the world to start right here,right now with their love of themselves to save the children of their generation. To “free us from the prison of our minds” as he puts it. By the time the song comes to its coda Joe is singing call and response style with the horn section singing “love undefeated/we can’t lose it if we got love”.

While admittedly I haven’t listened to an entire Joe album until this point? I personally have never heard him make any music of this sort before. As I stated i my Amazon review of the album? I felt that Joe,with his sense of compassion and thoughtfulness,would be more than capable of making some strong soul and even funk one day-that is if his romantic outlook were more well rounded and less self involved. So now not only has he delivered just that,but on the funkiest possible end-full of musically powerful keyboard parts,bass/guitar interaction and even exciting horn charts as well. The mixture of P-Funk and other late 70’s/early 80’s boogie funk elements such as “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” is also added to by the fact this is music with a message too. Joe is making “people music” here-encouraging the current younger generations not to resort to apathy and to express unleashed love. If Joe was ever going to make strong funk music? I cannot think of a much better way than this.

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Filed under Boogie Funk, Disco, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Joe, Late 70's Funk, Prince