Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further. By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.
Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.
A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.
What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.
Justin Timberlake is an artist whose creative (as well as commercially success) has surprised me on some level. A Memphis native who came directly out of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club along with Brittney Spears (who he dated for a short time),Timerlake was the lead singer of N’Sync,who came to be the poster child for what a lot of art house rock music people hated about “manufactured boy bands” as they’d put it. My late paternal grandfather,however,agreed with me Timberlake-with his soulful voice and beat boxing,came at music with a very different attitude.
This very musical oriented ethic even my grandpa,a man never into youth culture of any kind,was confirmed in late 2002 when he made his solo debut Justified. Its an album I got into a decade after it came out. Coming out during a time when most pop albums were being made by one or two people and was focused mainly on vocals,Timberlake’s debut featured not only The Neptunes (featuring Pharell Williams) and Timbaland,but also 70’s/80’s session great Nathan East along with Harvey Mason Jr. There was one song on it that remains my personal favorite. Its called “Rock Your Body”.
This is one of those songs where the refrains and choruses are carried by Timberlake’s vocal call and responses with himself. Musically however,this basic groove is extremely funkified. The high pitched rhythm guitar-like Clavicord synthesizer and bass line are both playing the same 8 note pattern-on opposite ends of the scale. A pulsing synth expands in and out lightly in the back round. The choruses and refrains are separated by calculated breaks in the music. After a jazzier chorded bridge,the song fades out with the bass line,drum and Timberlake beat boxing the bass line building back into itself.
“Rock Your Body” is a masterful production,one of Pharrell’s strongest overall. First time I heard it,it reminded me of Michael Jackson. Turns out Pharell had originally recorded the track for inclusion on MJ’s 2001 album Invincible. The late Jackson apparently turned it down,so Timberlake got one of his first major solo hits with it instead. The song has a grinding,glittery post disco funk sound to it that was very atypical for a lot of pop music of the early aughts. The build,structure and especially the singled out beatboxing at the end showcased Justin Timberlake totally living up to the musical promise he always exhibited.
Robin Thicke’s musical star has always shined a lot of classic soul links onto the pop charts during the new millennium. First saw the white suited Thicke on late night TV during the early autumn of 2002 performing the song “I’m ‘A Be Alright”. As time marched on and I began to explore his subsequent album,a wonderful creative evolution unfolded from him. He started out doing a lot of heavy retro styled funk and soul,with some contemporary alternative touches. As the aughts transitioned into the 2010’s,his sound began to include more contemporary hip-hop/R&B elements such as guest rappers and cut up rhythm break samples.
In 2006 Thicke’s sophomore album The Evolution Of Robin Thicke began his relationship with Pharrell Williams as producer and collaborator. He had signed to the Star Track record label,originally founded by The Neptunes-themselves consisting of Pharrell and Chad Hugo. Thicke’s sound continued to evolve it’s mixture of phat grooves and melodies over the course of his next four albums in as many years. In 2013 Pharrell found himself on a commercial role with Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers for “Get Lucky”-helping to bring instrumentally strong funky disco-dance music strongly into the public eye. And that roll continued with the title song to Thicke’s album that year called “Blurred Lines”.
The song begins as many of Pharrell’s songs do-with a re-sampled electric piano playing a three hit horn chart. That Rhodes (or Rhodes-like) solo serves as the songs bass line. The instrumental end of the rhythm of this song is basically a clanking,rolling percussion. It’s serves to accent in,on and around a shuffling drum part. The vocal call and responses from Thicke and Pharrell provide as much rhythmic content in this song as it does melodic. Especially as they talk sing in equal measure to vocalizing them melodically. After T.I’s additionally rhythmic rap,the song strips itself down to the drum/percussion line before fading out on it’s main chorus.
Analyzing this song musically really gives me a chance to try at setting the record straight on another matter relating to this song. Itself a Grammy winner,one which he performed with Earth Wind & Fire at the ceremonies themselves,there was a bit of controversy over the perceived sexism of the lyrics and accompanying music video. Still the song represented a huge upsurge in instrumentally strong uptempo funk for the 2010’s in terms of pop success. But it was a law suit the next year by Marvin Gaye’s widow Janis Hunter and adopted son Marvin III that has dogged this song. The suit alleges that “Blurred Lines” plagiarized the sound of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” from 1977.
One of the things about music that’s continued on through Africa up through hip-hop is respect for the oral tradition. A musical idea begins with one person and is passed down from parents,to child,to friend and so on. It allows for music to progress through influence as well as individual innovation. As for “Blurred Lines”,the songs only resemblance to Marvin’s “Got To Give It Up” is the clinging percussion sound and use of electric piano. This song has quite a lot less melodic vocal content. What Thicke,Pharrell and T.I. do on vocal level here is focused more heavily on rhythm as well-rather than conventional pop song structure.
Of course as of today,Pharrell and Thicke lost the lawsuit. And it seems to be that a series of similar lawsuits such as the one by The Gap Band (regarding Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk”) last year seem to have created a conflict of interest in the 2010’s #1 funk revival. Most of the songs to emerge for the past year or so from funk oriented modern artists have gone more for an electro hip-hop sound or an alternative rock one. Something that can denote a non litigious sense of musical originality. It may not be that concerning as these things can come and go in phases. But as it stands in funk’s strong place in the musically oral tradition,”Blurred Lines” is very significant modern funk.
Filed under 2013, copyright, Fender Rhodes, law suits, Marvin Gaye, Nu Funk, percussion, Pharrell Willaims, Robin Thicke, T.I., Uncategorized
Cee Lo’s debut album Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections ended up being a good idea that didn’t quite meet up to it’s full potential creatively. And commercially it went down with a great big fizzle. When he was about to release his second album OutKast released their masterpiece Aquemini,actually two seperate individual statements from each member. With it’s blockbuster success,Cee Lo knew he’d have to do something to improve his luck a little the second time around. So he teamed with Antonio LA Reid,noted for his ability to created commercial success seemingly on command,for his second album. All being said it was not a bad try.
Collaborating with Pharell wasn’t a bad idea on the pumping,dance floor friendly funky soul of “The Art Of Noise” as well as “Living Again”,which doesn’t feature Pharell but sounds it. A wah wah powered spoke word funk piece “I’m Selling My Soul” is another strong number as is the melodically soulful “All Day Love Affair”,a warm hearted tribute to Cee Lo’s girlfriend. “When We Were Friends”,”Sometimes”,”Let’s Stay Together”,not the Al Green classic but sure sounds like Al as well as “Die Trying” are all potent examples of fine retro soul songwriting that would be Cee Lo’s stock in trade in the future. So it hardly matters the ten or so hip-hop numbers here still mostly leave one cold.
After this of course Cee Lo teamed up with Danger Mouse for Gnarls Barkley,a project that earned Cee Lo the same level of success OutKast did a few years earlier. Several years after Gnarles Barkley drifted apart Cee Lo re-imagined his solo career with The Lady Killer,this time with far more commercially and creatively impressive results. What is most important is how this particular album so well represents his “first solo career” so to speak. He embodies the defining characteristics of the soul artist so well. On the surface there’s a stereotypical southern hip-hopper. Just skin deep under that though is a decent,very religious family man with strong moral and social values. It’s the old blend of the spiritual and the secular. On this,that musical argument isn’t given such a big audience. It’s still there. But he’s starting to really move onto greater things.
Originally posted on August 18th,2012
Link to original review here*
Thus far? 2015 has proven itself to be an important year for Stevie Wonder. He was the beneficiary of an all star Grammy tribute that included the likes of John Legend,Janelle Monae,Jill Scott and India.Arie. In addition he has recorded on two major records this year in-including “Crack In The Pearl Part II” and “Uptown ‘s First Finale” on Mark Ronson’s massively successful album Uptown Special, as well as on the latest collaboration between Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams Bush-playing and singing on the opening song “California Roll”
In addition to all this powerful musical activity? It’s been announced that Stevie is planning on releasing two separate albums this year. One is said to be a gospel album and the other a collaboration with David Foster. It’s unknown as to whether these or any other album project from Stevie is actually on the horizon. But one thing that’s been uppermost in my mind,as Stevie Wonder turns 65 today? It’s the prevailing attitude today that,much as James Brown was The Godfather Soul? It would seem that Stevie Wonder is now considered something of a godfather of neo soul.
One excellent example of this is the 1999 song “All That I Can Say”,performed by Mary J. Blige and composed by Lauryn Hill. The multi layered,jazzy and melodic synthesizers and the easy going percussive rhythm define the songs core. And those are both signatures of Stevie Wonder’s musical approach: utilizing new electronic technology to create brand new structures of sound that could be emotionally felt as well as heard. Of course neo soul in particular hasn’t always come to grips very well with the strong control Stevie has over his idiosyncratic vocal approach. And that soft yet powerful rhythmic fullness only comes into the music on fairly rare occasions.
In the end? It all comes down to a conversation Rique and myself have had over and over again. That the most positive creative flower of Stevie Wonder’s musical influence comes from those inspired by his musical approach, rather than his vocal one. Composing music with the type of jazz phrasings Stevie tends to use broadens songwriting possibilities for contemporary musicians. And his emphasis on modern electronics to create emotional textures of sound is extremely useful as well. Since the past decade or so seems to showcase Stevie’s instrumental and compositional talents rather than merely less than satisfactory imitations of his vocal ones? The man’s influence,at least at present,seems to be in very good hands. Stevie Wonder,happy birthday to ya’!
Filed under 1970's, India.Arie, Janelle Monae, Jazz, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Mavis Staples, Neo Soul, Pharrell Willaims, Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder
A dozen years ago,Snoop Dogg’s career was revitalized by The Neptunes. Half of which is Pharrell Williams,now the modern day Quincy Jones (as producer) himself. This was on the song “Let’s Get Blown”,featuring guest singer “Uncle Charlie” Wilson himself-the original Gapper. Today Pharrell,withdrawn musically from The Neptunes is absolutely on fire as a funky hit making producer/musician in his own right. And having the same effect on Snoop and Charlie yet again on the new song “Peaches ‘N Cream”.
A rigid,insistent beat counts down the full body of the song. The chorus consists of a clean,bubbling mid to higher toned electric bass line backed by a looser and slower 4/4 beat,accented with the ringing percussion on the last bar of the that bass line. The refrain of the song,which showcases Snoop’s melodic singsong rap, adds in a wonderfully Nile Rodgers style rhythm guitar along with a very dreamy style 70’s jazz/funk high electric piano solo wash hugging the guitar like a musical pillow to a blanket. This dynamic stretches in and out in variations as the melody and rhythm evolve as the song itself fades out.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this song is how musically elastic it is. On that level alone? It treats funk as a genre worthy of great respect and dignity. The main rhythmic thrust of it is very much out of the boogie/post disco late 70’s/early 80’s dance-funk kick that’s defined Pharell’s current productions. Also in classic P-Funk style? The danceable mean beat really concentrates ones attention on the Paulinho Da Costa like ringing percussion and other rhythmic accents. That harmonic element of jazziness that comes from the keyboard playing on this song helps expand out it’s funky elasticity.
The vocal arrangement is fantastic. It seems to melt Snoop,Charlie and perhaps Pharrell himself on a thick vocal chorus of male tenor funkiness. Charlie himself provides his typically thick (and in this case distant) call and response cries in the back round. Snoop Dogg is clearly keeping up with the playing sexuality that’s at the core of his lyricism. Only thing is? I’ve heard him do this so many times before,in exactly the same way. Snoops lyricism goes very much to the core of funk at it’s most lustful end. Just feel he sounds bored here-as if it’s become a bit of a formula. Nonetheless that cannot diminish the musical power and funky serenity this songs instrumental and vocal arrangement provides.
Filed under 2015, Boogie Funk, Charlie Wilson, dance funk, Funk, Funk Bass, Jazz-Funk, Nile Rodgers, P-Funk, Pharrell Willaims, post disco, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, The Neptunes
The contributions to every sub-genre of instrumental oriented funky dance music owes a great debt of gratitude to Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organization. Ever since his major commercial comeback in 2013 with creatively promising most millennial nu funk/disco icons Daft Punk Pharrell Williams on “Get Lucky”. Back in the game of hit production work with new artists such as Tensnake and Sam Smith? Nile began fine tuning some discarded tapes recorded originally for Sister Sledge and featuring the late bassist Bernard Edwards and singer Luther Vandross on vocals, and re-introduced his much anticipated comeback with Chic on a new groove entitled “I’ll Be There”.
It begins with the rolling percussion of Ralph Rolle,with Jerry Barnes bass weaving itself into the mix for a colorful rhythmic tapestry. ‘Nard himself then chimes in on his iconic mid toned rhythm guitar for his always danceable,rhythmic and chunky groove along with melodic (and sometimes spacey) accenting horns.-having Barnes take over on bass as the lead instrument on the vocal refrains. Just before the bridge of the song,the music again reduces down to the bass and percussion sound before even the bass strips out-leaving nothing but the fast paced Afro-Latin percussion before the song fads out on Nile’s chorus.
First thing that I can say about this Chic groove is that it has the complete flavor of a Chic song from their late 70’s,early 80’s heyday. The emphasis is again on the rhythm instruments such as bass,guitar and percussion. These are the elements that made Nile and Chic some of the funkiest musicians of the disco era. As well as being the core element of the post “Rapper’s Delight” take on commercially viable hip-hop that used live musicians as opposed to samples. The music video featuring a then and now look at a fashion conscious lady enjoying old Soul Train episodes,and spinning Chic vinyl records while the current band perform in a contemporary club perfectly captures their modern/retro disco vibe.
Wanted to close off with a little personal story time about myself and Chic. My own adolescence in the mid/late 90’s seemed to represent a gradual change in the music world’s attitude towards disco. It started out with a very virulent hatred in the “disco sucks” mold of the early 80’s freeze out of the music. Yet it ended with huge popular rappers such as Biggie Smalls and even Will Smith sampling disco/post disco era songs with total pride. Not to mention the importance of those songs complete embrace by the public in a positive light. This reminds me of my favorite lyric in this song which says “I don’t want to live in the past,but it’s a nice place to visit”. The disco era at it’s most musically vital represented a full channeling of Afro-Latin world music,big band jazz and the long form rhythms of funk. And it’s wonderful to hear that Chic and Nile Rodgers are still able to pull it all together so wonderfully!
Filed under 2015, Bernard Edwards, Chic, Daft Punk, Disco, Funk, Funk Bass, Get Lucky, Jerry Barnes, Luther Vandross, Nile Rodgers, nu disco, Pharrell Willaims, Ralpe Rolle, Sam Smith, Sister Sledge, Tensnake