Music for the NEXT One Purple MusicLives Edition : “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” by Wallace Roney

 

The only way I’ve been able to really come to grips with Prince’s passing has been through the artistic medium he mastered the most during his lifetime, music. Today’s “Music for the NEXT One selection, “Virtual Choclate Cherry” has several layers of musical and personal associations with Prince’s life and music. Wallace Roney is one of the “Young Lions” of Jazz who appeared on the scene in the 1980s. Unlike Wynton Marsalis, who although greatly influenced by Miles’ second Great Quintet, allowed himself to be positioned in the media as a sort of Anti Miles Davis, Wallace Roney embraced the broad, “Social Music” concept of post “In a Silent Way” Miles. He did this with a tone that was so Miles influenced that the members of the second Great Quintet, with all the original members save Miles himself, used him to take Miles place when they staged a reunion tour during the ’80s. Roney is also reputed to be one of Miles few trumpet students, and he supported Miles at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival, with Quincy jones conducting Gil Evans classic arrangements from his collaborations with Miles. Of course, Miles and Prince were mutual fans of each other’s work as well as their mutual Gemini complexities. One of my big musical “what ifs” is imagining how the music would have sounded if those two Giants were able to record more. There are a few examples of their collaborations, but today’s song, “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” by Wallace Roney, might be the best example I’ve yet heard of a Miles musical attitude in a Prince type of musical environment. Roney takes Prince’s classic from the “1999” album, “D.M.S.R” and keeps the party going with room for the musicians to solo, and a fascinating new mix of synthesized pop and acoustic jazz textures.

The song begins at the beginning with the 8 note funky synth riff from “D.M.S.R”, played on a synth, sitting right on top of Lenny White’s drums. White’s drums have his classic, full, wide marching jazz sound, playing a funky, laid back variation of Prince’s original Linn Drum beat. In the 4th bar the acoustic bass comes in, and it has the freedom to improvise different funky lines as the electric piano plays a bluesy sounding riff. There is an electric wave sound in the background most likely added by co-producer Kareiem Riggens. At this point in my first hearing of the song I knew I was hearing “D.M.S.R” but I didn’t know how far Roney and company would go.

When the five note “D.M.S.R” blues riff comes in (DA-Da-DAAAH-DADA) you realize they’re going all out into full Purple mode! The synth hits with Mineapolis sound gospel chords as the acoustic bass begins to play Prince’s classic line. The Acoustic piano of Geri Allen takes over the playing of the introductory line played on synth. Wallace Roney comes in playing his variation of Prince’s vocal melody from the song, and he Tounges his trumpet very aggressively, spitting out staccato, funky notes, with the same type of bluesy tail off that was a trademark of the Miles Davis sound. Underneath Roney’s melody, Lenny White plays funky drum rolls, which he builds up to crescendo’s that pop right along with the synthesizers at the end holes in Roney’s melodic phrases (Wear lingerie to the restaurant!!!)

About 1:33 in, a very Minneapolis sounding keyboard riff comes in that moves the song through several keys, supported by Whites drums. This is the setup for the instrumental solo section of the song, which is still very well arranged through Roney’s solo. The first time around it serves as a cue for Roney to play the melody from the top again. The second time it appears it serves as a bridge to a serious minor key groove, which White begins by playing a James Brown style stop and start funk beat while the piano plays some dark sounding, ominous phrases. This serves as the launch pad for Roney to play some very Miles style things, one moment he’s playing a well shaped phrase and leaving space between it, the next he’s soaring like Miles in the ’60s and tumbling back down the horn. What makes it unique is he goes from ’60s Miles to playing things more reminiscent of an ’80s album like “Star People.” The sax and keyboards come in and play a unison line taken from Miles Davis song “Star on Cicely.” As the sax solo plays the piano stabs out well stated chords.

After the sax solo, a Fender Rhodes solo is introduced, quite tellingly it’s not the lush Rhodes sound we know and love, but the brittle, time heavy Rhodes sound from Miles recordings with Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea in the ’60s. After that piano comes in and plays a groove supported by synth. The Mineapolis key changes again bring us right back to the top, with Roney playing the “Dance Music Sex Romance” melody, the band laying down some calamitous jazz funk, and trumpet and tenor playing a duet on the way out that Roney leaves with an abrupt trumpet call, leaving it to the Tenor man to play us on out.

I love “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” because it realizes in a musical sense, the deep love and respect Miles Davis had for the music of Prince. It Los gives us a taste of how the ’80s could have sounded if the soul jazz musicians like Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, and Jimmy McGriff could have gotten their hands on Prince’s music and created true fusions of electronics and acoustics in line with their ’60s records. The mixture of Prince’s composition and arrangement, Roney’s rearrangement to fit a jazz style, and Miles way of musical thinking, trumpet sound (through Roney), and even some phrases and instrumental textures from “Star People” and “Bitches Brew” make for an incredible, never heard before musical combination. And a good way to console ourselves in this time of a Prince’s passing and “Miles Ahead” in the theaters, thanks to musicians like Wallace Roney and his band, Jazz, Miles Davis music, and the music of Prince will live on!!

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James Brown’s Greatest Opening Lines : A James Brown Day Celebration

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May 3 of this year marks what would be the Godfather of Soul, James Brown’s 83rd birthday. Of course Mr. Brown is a big hero of this blog and my musical activities and outlook in general. This year I want to take a different approach to remembering him and his music. I want to talk about a small idiosyncrasy of his legendary performing style, his love of spoken introductions. James Brown records were all about getting you into the groove as quickly as possible, and his recording style reflected his unique position as singer/bandleader. It really was Brown’s interest in, feel for, and direction of his backing music which took him places very few singer/performers ever go, into the realm of total musical influence, without spending much time on an instrument. He also pioneered a loose, laid back production style that would find life in things like Hip Hop skits. James Brown productions often feature a little “rap”, hip, stylized expressions. Browns penchant for band directions however, was a big part of his performing, band leading, and recording/production style, and it’s also a feature that’s been mocked by great comedians such as Eddie Murphy. It’s in that spirit that I serve up this list of James Brown’s greatest song introductions

17. “Hit It”/”Doin it to Death”: getting straight down to business, JB’s “Hit It” on the Fred Wesley and the JB’s 1973 classic “Doin it to Death” is one of his most straight up, immediate intro’s. The groove the JB’s had cookin was hot, and JB didn’t need to waste a lot of time setting the groove up, the band was already “Doin it to death”, just like the workers in the factory where Fred Wesley once worked that inspired the song title.

16. “Owwwwww”/Ain’t That a Groove”: the scream of ecstasy, passion and pain, “ow!” Is of course one of JB’s favorite exclamations and he opened a bunch if songs with it. This particular “Ow” is super stylized though, as befitting the groovy, swinging soul jazz tune to follow.

15. “Pick up on This!”/”I’m a Greedy Man”: JB means serious business here as he barks out his commands. This is a “pay attention to papa” type opener. Salt n Pepa would pick up on it for their Hip Hop classic, “Push It” about fifteen years later.

14. “One, Two, Three, Make it Funky!”/”Make it Funky”: This one follows one of James Brown and Bobby Byrds most celebrated intro bits, with Mr. Byrd telling Brown, “What you go’ play now? And Brown replying, “Bobby, I don’t know, but WHATSENEVER I play….it’s got…to be…FUNKY!” JB’s count off perfectly sets up the slow, heavy, grinding funk with a light swing of this early Funk classic.

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13. “Owwwwww!”/I Got Ants in my Pants”: Another song, another “Ow”, but this time delivered with more in your face gusto.

12. “One, Two, Three, Take your Time!”/”I Refuse to Lose”: As most JB fans are probably aware, most of his song openers are verbal variations of him counting off the groove. What’s interesting is thinking about the relationship between his count offs, the excessive, strict, blue collar rehearsals he put his bands through, and the relationship between his count offs and the grooves the band are able to fall into and stick to with absolute conviction. “I Refuse to Lose” is a lesser known Funk classic from 1976’s comeback record “Get Up Offa That Thing.” The song is anchored by a tense, super funky Jimmy Nolen guitar part. James count off is brisk, and perfectly sets up the uptempo groove to follow. I’d guess his instructions to “Take your time” were based in any tendency he noticed during rehearsals to rush the groove and make an uptempo groove even faster, again, James Brown music locks it in the pocket!

11. “One, Two, One, Two, Three”/”Let Yourself Go”: “Let Yourself Go” was one of the important songs as James Brown made his transition over from a personal brand of Soul and R&B into Funk. It’s laid back, phat groove, accented with Afro-Latin percussion, would pave the way for his show stopping, “There was a Time.” JB’s count off really fits right with what was,a new kind of groove, slow and funky.

10. “One, Two, And she Go!!!!”/”Funky Drummer”: “Funky Drummer” is one of those tunes that’s all about the band, basically an instrumental with some funky talk from JB that would allow it to sneak on the radio under JB’s name. Of course it’s also a showcase for one of the most influential drumbeats of all time, the contributions of Clyde Stubblefield the tune is named after. Brown’s count off is directed at setting up an easy, swinging groove, much more laid back than the other funk hits of this era, such as “I Got the Feeling”, or “Mother Popcorn.” I must admit though, I’m not 100% sure he actually said “and she go” as that opening phrase, but Ima roll with that until something better comes along.

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9.”One, Two, Three, Hit It!”/”Super Bad”: this is one JB’s most violent, aggressive count offs, for one his most tension filled, funkiest hits. “Super Bad” is one of the high points of Bootsy And Catfish Collins brief time in the James Brown band. The rhythm section is basically just a taut trio of Bootsy, his brother Catfish, and long time James Brown drummer John “Jab’O” Starks playing a drumbeat he says he got from beats for tap dancers. The beat is also accented by the percussion of long time JB percussionist Johnny Griggs, and the horns play sharp, stabbing literal jabs. The track is like Muhammed Ali, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.

8.”Ready!?”/”Get on Up, Get Into it! Get Involved” & “The Funky Side of Town”: every now and then JB would ask the band if they were “ready” probably after 8 hours of rehearsals, checking to see if they still had a pulse. In this case, the “Ready” in “Get Up” has political resonance, and the “Ready” in “Funky Side of Town” is a call to have a funky good time.

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7.”Whoooooah!”/”I Feel Good”: Of all JB’s wordless vocalizing intros, the holler that inaugurated “I Feel Good” is tops in my book. Of course “I Feel Good” is one of his best known, best songs, a catchy, peppy number with a groove formulated during the James Brown bands transition into Funk, grooving but still related enough to the pop music scene as to be twist fodder for the public at large. And the hook is one of JB’s uncomplicated best. But it’s all kicked off by a legendary scream that became good material for samplers of the future.

6. “One, Two, Get Down!”/”The Boss”: “The Boss” is one of the iciest funk grooves in the James Brown songbook, concocted for the 1973 gangster movie “Black Caesar.” The proper aggressive tone is set right at the top by J.B’s count off, with the “Get Down” taking on all kind of meanings; band instruction, cheerleading, and warning!

5. “Fellas I wanna get into it man, you know…”/”Sex Machine”: “Sex Machine” is one of J.B’s most important records a taut, sexy new funk groove for the dawn of the 1970s, anchored by the active bass imagination of Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish’s space saving rhythm licks, and Jab’O’s cool, ice water veined funk pulse. Call and response between J.B and his right hand man, the great Bobby Byrd, is at an all time high on this song, and the interplay between their voices would be a key aspect of their records during this period. But J.B starts the song with a cool, hanging out type intro, leading to his famous, “can I count it off!?!?!”

James Brown on drums with  an early version of The Famous Flames

James Brown on drums with an early version of The Famous Flames

4. “One, Two, One, Two, Three, UH!”/”Hot Pants”: Brown counts off a nasty tempo, punctuated by one of his famous band punches. The intro is a setting for “Hot Pants” slow, funky, ice cream melting in the summer time groove, anchored by the simple, ghetto bass throb of Fred Thomas and the insistent, chattering, lisping splank a lang of guitarist Hearlon “Cheese” Martin. This era of J.B might represent his and Fred Wesley’s greatest achievements as bandleader/arrangers, taking a band that was essentially raw, and making some of the best known hits of J.B’s career, going in a less dense direction than the Collins brothers/Cincinnati and they replaced. And it all starts with JB’s mellow but funky count off.

3. “One, Two, One, Two, Three, Four”/”Cold Sweat”: and off into history. “Cold Sweat”, after hundreds of years of African in America funkiness, is widely regard as the beginning of modern funk history, with it’s pistoning funk machine drumbeat from Clyde Stubblefield, Bernard Odums super deep bass tone playing an Afro-Latin line, a super funky two guitar arrangement, one guitar playing a funky single note line and the other scratching away in percussive strokes, a unique tonality from the key of Dorian, popularized on Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, and another thing borrowed from “Kind of Blue”, the actual famous horn riff/chord to “So What”, played by the horn section as interjection/response to J.B’s lyrics. And it all starts with the sultry tempo set at the top by Brown.

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2. “Que Pasa People, Que Pasa, Hit Me!”/”Get on the Good Foot”: J.B opened up 1972’s peppy dance hit with a bit of Trans American slang, Proto-rapped in a chant cadence that perfectly took up one bar. This is one of James Brown Ebonics most controversial lines, with some people hearing it as “Can’t pass the peas.” But I go with “Que Pasa”, if you listen to the song all the way, Brown goes into some Spanish later on the fade out. James Brown toured the world many times over, and in the early ’70s he was particular interested in third world liberation. He has a song on the same album called, “The Whole World Needs Liberation.” He also opened up a club called “The Third World” in Georgia during this time period. James was fascinated at this time by the international impact he and other black figures like Muhammed Ali were having, it was almost as if through the struggle for rights here in the U.S, black figures were joining the global pantheon of Liberators, as maybe the best examples of them, in the belly of the biggest superpower the world had yet seen. If u check J.B’s stage performances you’ll find him speaking a few words of the language of whatever nation he happened to be Doin his thang in!

1. “UH! With your BAD self!”/”Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”: The top JB introduction is this funky soul brother street slang that led off the 1968 anthem. James opening “Uh” sets the stage for a funky drum beat, the count off is rock hard, with him using the black slang “Bad” as a term of encouragement and praise. The beat to follow is be rock hard, and James Brown’s legacy was cemented as musical and social icon of his time!

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*we all know the late great Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the biggest students, inheritors, and expanders of the James Brown legacy, and his musical associate Sheila E was responsible for one of the freshest James Brown count offs in history on her Prince penned and played classic “Love Bizarre”, “A, B, A, B, C, D!”

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Dad, and two Jazz visions of Liberia

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

March 3rd, 2016 marks the seventh anniversary of my father, Herman L Hopkins Sr.’s passing. As I think about him on this day, among all of the experiences and memories I have of him, I’m drawn the most to talk about two jazz compositions by two Tenor men. Dad was a contemporary and a fan of both of these musicians, and I grew up hearing them. Coltrane of course is one of the most celebrated musicians in music history, and one who represented the zeitgeist of his times, with his deep, soulful probings, consummate technical mastery, and his Eastern spiritualism. Curtis Amy was more of a blue collar, hard working musician, but his move from Texas to Los Angeles reminds me of the migration many Black people made from the South to West Coast cities, my father being one of them. I tend to think there is something in particular in the sound of people like Curtis Amy, Wilton Felder, and others who made that South to West move that calls my Dad back to mind for me more than any other music I hear and enjoy.

One thing I can say about Dad’s life, is that music was a constant in it, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When Dad was young he played around with several instruments. My Grandmother Leona bought him a Piano, on which he learned to pound out some Boogie Woogie, and then a Trumpet, for him to better play the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. Dad played at them, but never got seriously disciplined enough to become a musician. No matter, music was still a huge part of his life anyway, on 78, 45 and 33 rpm records.

Dad joined the military in the late ’40s. He wanted to go into the Air Force to become a Pilot, and passed the Air Force test, but ended up going into the Army with one of his buddies who didn’t pass. His friends Parents vetoed his military aspirations, leaving Pops a 17 year old in the Army by himself. After he made it out of the Korean War, he joined Grandma Leona, His Aunt Mattie B, and several other relatives on the West Coast, first in Seattle, Washington, then in San Francisco.

The Bay Area in the ’50s was a vibrant West Coast extension of the “Chitlin circuit.” The West Coast of course does not have the cluster of big cities found on the Eastern seaboard, but The Black communities of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and their surrounding cities, as well as Seattle, were always tour stops for the national Black touring acts, due to their growing Black populations. In addition to that the Bay Area had a thriving Blues based music scene, centered in places like 7th Street in Oakland, and the Fillmore District in San Francisco.

At that particular time Dad was married to a special lady I call “Miss” Juanita. At first he lived with his mother Leona and her husband, Mr. Cliff, himself a musician, in San Francisco, but eventually he and Miss Juanita purchased a home in Menlo Park. Dad was attending school at San Jose State while working as a MUNI Bus Driver in the City, and then a Mailman.

Music was a huge part or his social life and leisure time. This was during the era of Hard Bop, and he built up a big collection of jazz, blues, classical, show tunes, R&B, and pop balladeer music. He also studied the Tenor Saxophone with a musician who sometimes subbed for the Duke Ellington orchestra. Sometimes he also M.C’d for nightclub acts, played percussion instruments, and did music reviews for the Sun-Reporter, a local Black newspaper. His career aspirations had shifted to Journalism and the Law by that time, but Music was still a constant thread through all he did.

I’m still not 100% sure of everything that led Dad to Liberia in 1959. I do know that he was very active in Civil Rights actions here in the Bay Area. This lead to him being a person watched by the Police. He told me of one final climatic fight with the cops, where an officer handcuffed him and tried to push him to the ground. Dad swung his handcuffed hands and cut the officer behind the ear. The Cop bled so much Dad was afraid he’d cut a major artery. After that he’d have trouble with the Police every time he went to the 49ers games at the old Kezar stadium.

I think the race based troubles of the times, Dad’s activism, and a sense of adventure all conspired to bring him to Africa. Some Bay Area natives who can still remember the ’50s sometimes get caught up in it’s relative integration. But there were still subtle forms of Jim Crow in existence at the time, which would come to full light a few years later when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Liberia was suggested by a West African transfer student. Africa as a whole was a great topic of interest among Black people in the ’50’s, an interest that would explode during the Black Consciousness era of the ’60s. More and more African nations had gained their independence throughout the decade and the old African American dreams of a dignified life in Africa were rekindled. Liberia was one of the original targets of those dreams, during the 19th Century. The African business student thought that Liberia would be a better country for my Father and Juanita to settle in. The basis of it was Liberia’s history as a country founded by American Blacks. The official language was English. The Constitution and flag were modeled on that of The United States. It even deeper than that, unlike the stories people generally hear about Africans, Liberians generally had a positive attitude about American Blacks. This was due to their history, but also to the steady stream of American Blacks going to Liberia over the years as soldiers, missionaries, Teachers and technical workers.

Liberia had several periods where it seemed a truly massive influx of Blacks would flow in from the Diaspora. Liberian officials were expecting this before the Civil War held up the prospects of freedom. Then during Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement, Liberia was the target of his repatriation schemes, until the Liberian government realized Garvey’s resettlement might mean a take over and loss of power for them. Liberia saw a great influx of American investment during and after World War II. It’s status as a Black Country in Africa with ties to America made it a common landing spot for American Black Teachers, trainers, missionaries and others. At one time during the ’70s, even The Black Hebrew Israelites were given refuge in Liberia before eventually settling in Israel.

The Hopkins family made a six month stop in Harlem with my great uncle Edward from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Dad told me his favorite album during that time was Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” featuring John Coltrane and another favorite, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on saxophone. I forget exactly why they were delayed so long in New York City, it might have been Visa problems, but by the time they got ready to board the boat to Liberia, all their funds had been depleted.

When Dad and Miss Jaunita got to Monrovia, they circulated well enough to get invited to President Tubmans inauguration. Another jazz favorite of Dad’s played there, the flautist Herbie Mann, who would make an album, “The Common Ground”, off his Liberian Hi-Life influences.

Although Dad went to Liberia to study the Law and be involved in various business activities, music was still a foundation. He was the M.C at an establishment called “The Playboy Lounge” (picking up the nickname “Playboy Hopkins), and ran another one called “The Tropical Hut.” He was also Music Appreciation lecturer at various High Schools in Monrovia. One of his biggest musical activities was serving as a DJ for the Voice of America’s “Sound of Jazz” program. One of the biggest perks of that gig was getting reels of the latest and clasic jazz releases and live performances. Eventually Dad and Miss Juanita got divorced, which is when he met my mom and they got married. But his love and appreciation for music continued on to the time I came around. He even promoted a disco-funk concert in Monrovia in 1979, bringing Brooklyn group, Crown Heights Affair to the E.J Roye building for a series of concerts coinciding with the OAU festival.

John Coltrane and Curtis Amy were two saxophonists he taught me about in the 1990s, both roughly around the same age as Dad and with very similar sensibilities. I know it really would have blew his mind to hear music that they recorded inspired by Liberia. Somehow, as much music of theirs as he had, their Liberia themed records escaped him. The fact that two musicians he admired were in some way inspired by the same country he was drawn to, shows that in some way, Liberia was meant for him, and other minds he admired were thinking along those lines as well. So I share these two songs in this blog , in memory of Dad, and as a tribute to Liberia.

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Music for the NEXT One : Denise Matthews Memorial Weekend Special Presentation, “Milkshake” by Kelis

In the aughts the music of Prince was a clear funky influence on R&B music, when it wanted to capture a sound that was more musical, nostalgic, and yet futuristic and electronic enough to sound contemporary. The Neptunes were leaders in this trend, as Prince’s concise, simple funky grooves could fit easily into their electro Hip-Hop, rhythm centered dance productions. Chad and Pharrell had the unique ability to take funky songs and rhythms and condense them into radio ready tracks with a modern electronic, thin, futuristic sonic quality. It was almost like they gave you the 8 bit version of past funk, soul, rock, and pop classics. In Kelis, they had the perfect muse. When I first saw Kelis’ “Caught Out There” back in my senior year of High School, she immediately impressed me as the prototype of the type of woman I wanted to talk to. She had all the eclectic Afrocentric, Afro-Punk, #carefreeblackgirl, #blackgirlmagic, artsy vibes I desired, in a package very close to my own age. “Milkshake” is the closest she ever came to the world takeover I felt she deserved. The song reached #4 on the pop charts in 2003, an absolute smash. Once again, The Neptunes draw on “Nasty Girl” as the epitome of female sexual braggadocio, both in the lyrics and more obliquely, in the track as well. They show their incredible skills in interpolation, as they take the percussion heavy groove of “Nasty Girl” and drop it off in the North African desert, keeping the basic percussion feel but playing it on instruments with a more exotic tonality.

“Milkshake” begins with one bar that sounds like the groove repeating over and over, after which it goes straight into the main groove. The chorus is right on the top, a very sing songy, sassy, “My Milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/their life/is better than yours/damn right/it’s better than yours/I could teach you/but I have to charge.” Which has a very schoolyard girls taunt vibe to it in the way it was said. Kelis speaks the main chorus and sings a very taunting higher part in a higher register. The drum beat again has the stop start vibe of “Nasty Girl” but this time the sound palette shifts from the Carribean/Afro Spanish world to India, North Africa, and Middle East. Just as James Brown demanded, the “One” is very hard, being played on what sounds like a goblet drum, with a full, round, ball being shot from a cannon sound. That Darka sound hits hard on the one, only playing about twice a bar, leaving lots of space for the smaller, Indian sounding percussion. The track, just like “Nasty Girl”, is very bassy, in this instance using a deep sawtooth synthesizer sound for the bassline that is basically playing “Na-Na, Na-NA, NAA”, a school yard chant sound Kelis will sing later in the tune. There is another synth part, about an octave up, but still very low playing a three note pattern, and the classic Neptunes clavinet/guitar/harpsichord sound is also present, taking the place of a rhythm guitar, playing jittery rhythms that complement the percussion. The keyboard part plays on the up beats but also lines up with the “Na-NA, NAA’s of the bass line, to give the effect of a track that is taunting you. All of this might be irritating if the track wasn’t so bassy and rooted in the low end, with even Kelis’s singing being in a fairly low register. The song also has a bridge where the drum beat continues unabated but the bass synth progresses deeper, as Kelis voice also goes deeper until the point where she has to talk her lines.

One of the most exciting musical developments in Black music for me in the aughts was the incorporation of Middle Eastren melodies, rhythms and instruments. I remember joking with my good friend Frank about going out to get an “Arab drum machine.” The incorporation of these sounds were very powerful in a pre and post 9/11 world, and one day musicologist a and sociologists might have a great time exploring the impetus behind the fusion. Prince tapped into a similar vibe in “Nasty Girl”, giving a singer who everybody thought was a Latina, an Afro-Carribean dance track. In truth, the Afro-Latin musical vibes made Funk, Afro Beat,a nd all the modern black musics possible, connecting black American music back to the African rhythmic source. The Middle Eastren/North African side is a part of this as well, with the musical influences on Europe of the Moors, and the Melisma in black singing being related to the songs of the Muslim world. In Muslim tradition it was Bilal the Ethiopian who originated the call to Mecca. Pharrell and Chad used this vibe to find a new sound here. And it’s one of the best pop hits ever, sassy, hip, ironic, humorous, and full of female swagger. Kelis songs a song of a supremely confident woman on her best day, with her Mojo working, stopping all traffic. The Neptunes went beyond merely copying “Nasty Girl” here to something far more difficult, MAKING their own “Nasty Girl.” They did it by bringing in unique influences and a unique sound palette, and making a song full of sexual confidence, but not sex itself, highlighting the allure of a confident woman.

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Music for the NEXT One 02/26/16 : Special Denise Matthews Memorial Presentation, “I’m a Slave for U” by Britney Spears

Saturday, Febuary 26, 2016, marks the funeral of Denise Matthews, known during her performing career as Vanity. Though she left that name and it’s negative implications for her behind almost a quarter of a century ago, the character that Prince crafted for her and she executed is still one of the most potent of it’s era. Prince took the beautiful biracial model, who most people thought was Latina, and made her the embodiment of sexually liberated freakieness. In truth, Ms. Matthews association with the funk was strong, even outside of the Artists direction, dating Rick James in the early days as well as doing album covers for Cameo. Today I want to honor the impact of her eternal, Prince composed and produced hit “Nasty Girl”, rcorded by the Vanity 6. “Nasty Girl” is one of the eternal dance funk classics. I recall being hypnotized by it’s Carribean, Afro Latin funk dance beat for as long as I can remember. Prince married an incredible funky rhythm track, highlighting a stop and start beat from his Linn Drum, with some steel drum type sounds providing a low, hollow bass line, with brief snapshots of his super funky guitar rhythms and New Wavey synths. It was the epitome of a feminine funk groove, one that seduced you instead of drove you, through means of it’s pregnant pauses and pelvic pops. On top of that Vanity spoke-sung a lyrical text that really couldn’t get any nastier and sexually frank, even if she added the obscenities that would become commonplace for female sex stars like Lil Kim and Nikki Minaj.

As the 2000s began and Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo came to prominence, I noticed that when they really want to give a female artist some funk power for the dance floor, their basic template is “Nasty Girl.” And who can blame them, as the record established a groove that still sounds fresh all these years later. I was hardly a Britney Spears fan when she came on the scene, and even less so when I realized her hit debut single, “Hit me Baby One More Time” was a very sterile, stiff attempt at a funky track. But when the Neptunes gave her this beat in 2001? I didn’t buy the record, no, but I surely enjoyed the video radio play when this one came on. “I’m a Slave for U” is our first of a three part tribute this weekend, celebrating the funky triumph of “Nasty Girl”, Prince, the Neptunes, and the late Denise Matthews.

“I’m a Slave for U” screams “Nasty Girl” from the first bar, opening with a clever milenial re imaginging of the classic rhythm pattern. The song begins with a drumbeat, a hard kick on the one setting off an unhurried funk tempo. Conga drums fill in the large spaces between the beats. On beat three in particular, two conga beats leading to beat four gives the track away as a clear daughter of “Nasty Girl.” But the Neptunes make sure baby girl has her own features, as the sampled sounding hi hats and the Neptunes abstract synth glisses take the tonality of the song far away from the Vanity 6’s tune, making use of a darker sound palette only implied in the steel drum bassiness of the original. After Britney’s spoken intro, the verse comes in, with Britney singing in a terse lower register and the Neptunes synths playing active rhythms in the mould of Prince’s rhythm guitar work. The keyboard sound has this guitar/clavinet vibe that was one of the Neptunes original sonic trademarks.

Britney was going for an independent vibe on this particular album, released in the year she turned 21. The lyrics play out a story of her going to a nightclub, possibly for the first time, with the intention of dancing and having a good time. She begins, “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl/well did you ever think it be okay for me to step into this world”. She ends up sprung off the dude she ends up dancing with, feeling like a “slave” to the lust and passion she feels. I must admit it tripped me out to hear a white singer sing about being a slave in an attraction/sexual context, but the lyric is also in line with Diana Ross classics such as “Love Hangover” and even “Upside Down.” The track behind her has the Neptunes classic pitch sliding bomb drops, and defined video game blips. They also make skillful use of a chord change to give the groove a different flavor during the refrain, and break the beat down to the Conga inflected beat with the haywire computer sounds accenting the rhythm. All through the chorus Britney is panting and breathing heavy, trying to match the sex appeal of “Nasty Girl” is her own Millennial way.

“Nasty Girl” has been viewed as somewhat of a song of female sexual empowerment over the years, because of the way The Vanity 6 boldly and witheringly spoke about their sexual needs, with ne’er concern for the male ego. It was fitting then that the Neptunes used Prince’s incredible track for a base to take Britney Spears into more mature adult subject matter. There was not much in the way of funky stuff I was excited about in the popular outlets in 2001, but this track hit me instantly when I heard it’s “Nasty Girl” update! The other songs in this weekend series, “Milkshake” by Kelis, and “Blow” by Beyonce, will highlight how Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams took “Nasty Girl” and institutionalized it in popular music as the heartbeat of female sexual outspoken dance music, even as Prince and Denise Matthews begged their Lord to forgive their youthful horny expressions!

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Maurice White : Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?

To say that Maurice White was one of the great leader figures of Black music is the only way I can possibly begin to eulogize him. And there seem to have been so many during the funk era. Issac Hayes, Sly Stone, James Brown, George Clinton, Hamilton Bohannon, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Fela Kuti, there were so many musician/bandleader/singer/producer figures who served as the focus point for the ambitions, creativity, dreams and ideas of whole organizations of men and women, musicians and musical businessmen. They all had messages that they transmitted, through their musical pronouncements, their philosophies, and just the way they did business. Whether it was the musical audacity of Issac Hayes making long playing albums with four long songs headed by his pronouncements on love or Quincy Jones going from jazz album, to teeny bopper pop, to movie soundtrack, to hardcore funk, to Michael Jackson, these musical visionaries did things their way, illuminating the Black experience and the potentials and contradictions of America in ways that were unique to them and the people who’s energies and stories they channeled.

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Maurice White channeled his through two of the musical capitals of Black America, Memphis and Chicago, and he took up extended residency in the home of American entertainment glitz and glamour, The city of Angeles, Los Angeles, California. He grew up in Memphis, learning music in that blues saturated city. Growing up in Memphis he was a friend and musical associate of people like Booker T Jones. Classmates like Booker T and Issac Hayes would make their impact on the world right out of Memphis, on the hometown Stax label. Maurice would first make his in another city known for the blues, Chicago, Illinois. Chicago’s blues was urbanized, a reflection of southern Black folks hitting the bright lights of the big city.

Maurice would make his name as a session drummer with the mighty Chess record label. His greatest pre-EWF claim to fame would probably be his years as a drummer for jazz piano great Ramsey Lewis, replacing Issac “Red” Holt. From there he would go on to form Earth, Wind & Fire, including his brothers Verdine on bass and Freddie on drums, going through several it lineups of the group before landing on the classic lineup and sound that would become one of the defining ones of the 1970s.

That’s a small, tiny bit of Maurice’s biography. What I really want to talk about is his contribution to culture through the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. Maurice White came from strong southern musical roots, and melded that with an academic mindset and inclination. His stepfather, Verdine Adams, was a medical doctor, and his little brother, bassist Verdine White, was studying to be both a musician and an M.D. Maurice himself was a student at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. In Chicago, Maurice came in contact with many Afrocentric ideas that would go on to influence his life and the kind of music he created, ideas from the far out fringes of free jazz. He also came in contact with alternate spiritual systems to the Southern Christianity he was raised with, including Islam, Buddhism, and African religions.

As time goes on I’m beginning to see the funk bands of the ’70s as not only analogous to the hippie communes but also as kin to the Black militant groups that existed contemporaneously. Maurice’s Earth, Wind & Fire was of course a descendant of the great itinerant jazz orchestras of bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Earl “Fatha” Hines. And these black bands have always been organizations that offered income, international travel, worldwide acclaim, and exposure to new ideas for their members. All of these aspects were intensified with EWF, as the band actually lived together in the early years, with Maurice serving as a big brother figure.

But the thing that really makes Maurice stand out for me, is that in contrast with the “do your own thing” leadership of his main philosophical contemporary George Clinton, Maurice ran a tight James Brown ship with a loving spiritual twist. You could say in the ’60s the Godfather ran a Freedom Rider style organization, with the knowledge that any misconduct on the part of his band members could derail their journey to financial and musical freedom. Maurice ran a clean living entity not through intimidation, but through education. Maurice used to sequester the group up in remote mountainous regions to study The Egyptian book of the Dead, do yoga, take dance lessons, all the while eating organic whole foods. After a while it became too much for some band members, but it would seem he was successful in getting everybody on the same page for the unquestioned musical triumphs of EWF’s Golden decade.

I think that Maurice’s methods and message are more relevant in our current times than ever. The hedonistic, partying side of George Clinton’s legacy was celebrated during the gangster rap era of the 1990s. The current Black movement seems to call for both mens approaches. Maurice White’s clean eating, Pan-Africanism, African spirituality, universalism, collectivism, as well as his deep African American southern roots, and his original inclusion of women in the band, all speak to some of the values that are red hot in the Black community today. The best part of the deal is that he left them here for us in a package of some of the best music and strongest visuals the world has ever had. Were seeing a return to Black pop commentary from artists like D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyonce. It’s up to artists to create a means to speak that is compatible with their personalities, knowledge, and audiences. But to fail to do so at this time would be to disregard the incredible contributions of Maurice White and his musical associates. I say any artist who fails the test should no longer be allowed to listen to “September”, starting with their next family reunion. Dooming them to a hell of un funky joylessness for not heeding the ancestors call!

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Music for the Next ONE 1/15/16: “Jump Start” by Nathalie Cole

The turning of the year 2016 AD has already brought somber reflections for those of us who grew up on late 20th century soul, pop, R&B and rock. Some of the musical deaths we’ve endured have included luminaries such as Nick Caldwell of the mighty Whispers, and the protean David Bowie. The first one to catch me off guard was the passing of Ms. Nathalie Cole. Nathalie Cole was one of those people of tremendous strength, because she lived her life with great health challenges that she never allowed to get in the way of sharing her gifts with the world. I remember marveling in recent years over how she could conduct tours while also taking dialysis treatments daily, and then three times a day. Nathalie Cole’s death is difficult because when I looked at her beautiful face, besides her tremendous talent, I always saw the mothers, aunties, church ladies, Teachers, real estate brokers, and many other women who made up the black community when I was growing up. She was always, despite her personal troubles, a beacon of class in the entertainment field, and I followed her through venues such as her Television talent competition “Big Break”, on to her great success with “Unforgettable” in 1992, and beyond. My prenatal grew up with the music of her father and that carried right on to their love of her music as well. I, along with my buddy Andre Grindle, have always talked about the year 1987 as really great years for us, musically s well as personally. Well, “Jump Start (My Heart)”, with it’s cute, catchy refrain, was a huge funky comeback hit for Nathalie in that year, that I remember vividly from Bay Are radio stations like KMEL, KSOL, and KDIA.

“Jump Start” was written by Reggie Calloway, and produced by him along with his brother Vincent. The Calloways had a strong funk pedigree, being members of the great early ’80s funk band Midnight Star. The Calloways productions such as “Operator” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor” found a fresh new electro funk direction for the music. The Calloways also gave the late ’80s much of it’s synth funk sheen,producing some of my personal favorites such as “Joy” for Tesdy Pendergrass, “Love Overboard” for Gladys Knight & The Pips, and “Cassanova” for Levert. In retrospect, they were responsible for much of the musical vitality I felt in 1987 R&B!

One of the things I love about this joint is how the Calloway’s take time to establish the groove before Ms. Cole comes in to do her thing. The song begins with some rather wistful sounding block chords on a digital keyboard, sounding somewhat like a digital keyboard’s impression of an enchanced Fender Rhodes electric piano, but also having it’s own unique, thin and slightly whispy digital character. In addition. To the chords the keyboardists right hand plays a melancholy little four note riff that sets the song up. Of course when I was a young tyke, next to some of the old bluesy ’60s R&B I still heard around town, sounds like this were the height of modern sophistication. After that plays, the all powerful ’80s construction worker drum beat comes in. The drum beat is unique in where it leaves space though, instead of keeping up a steady hammering beat, it starts and stops in a manner that is melodic in it’s own right, laying the perfect rhythmic template for the bass line that will come in later. The drum part is also supported by an active cowbell part that does much to add some human groove alongside the powerfully steady drum machine beat. Nathalie says “Alright ya’ll” as if she’s letting the band know it can come in, and let’s out some soulful vocalizing, as the ultra funky, whip tight ’80s one note, mid register funky guitar falls in line. The next instrument to be introduced is the super funky keyboard bass, which has the sound of a digital keyboard’s impression of a Mini Moog. Again, instead of hammering out every beat, the Calloways lay down a synth part that is syncopated, choppy, jumpy, and very melodically memorable as a result.

The lyrical story that Nathalie Cole handles with finesse is one very appropriate both for a star on the “comeback” trail and a person like herself, in her mid thirties at that time. She starts it off “Feels like my batteries/in need of a jump”, with rhythmic slickness in her handling of that line. She asks the target of her song to, “give me a spark/to get the fire burning/get my engine moving/set these wheels a turning.” Nathalie does this all with slick rhythmic sophistication, making some very tricky lines sound easy, and if u don’t believe me, just cue this up at Karaoke one day. The video is one of those fun 80s things, full of high color saturation and people getting down at the park while Nathalie and her dancers bring the house down. What’s not to love?

“Jump Start” went all the way up to #2 on the R&B charts in ’87, which got Nathalie Cole over a 1980s slump and got her back in the realm of visibility that would pave the way for her triumphant success singing her fathers songs alongside him in 1992. Chuck D talks about how Black musical artists are like your aunts and uncles growing up. Well for sure, Nathalie Cole was my aunt in 1987, as this jam was the soundtrack to all kinds of functions. And it will always be that type of fun, friskieness with class I will remember about Ms. Cole, from “This Will Be” on through the rest of her fantastic career.

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