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.


Filed under All That Jazz, Autobiographical Musings, Liberia/Africa

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.


Filed under Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

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!


Filed under Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Uncategorized

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.


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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Filed under FUNK, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Uncategorized

Riquespeaks : Looking Ahead to 2016….what’s in store


2015 has been an eventful year both on this blog and in my life as a whole. The year was my first full one after having left Oakland and moving to a neighboring East Bay city, and I was extremely busy at work. My primary blogging outlet was on my friend Andre Grindle’s blog, Andresmusictalk, where I developed the “Anatomy of the Groove” column and encouraged several other developments on that blog. “Anatomy of The Groove” enabled me to do something that is one of my passions, write about and promote new good music, specifically in the real, of funky music. The other exciting development in my writing career was I began writing for a new online and print magazine, “Kwee, The Liberian Literary Journal.” My involvement with the Journal stemmed from blog postings that my readers here at riquespeaks enjoyed the most, several of my posts that dealt with pre war history in the country of Liberia, West Africa. These posts on Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Hugh Masekela were a heartfelt contribution from me to Liberian history, information my musical digging lead me to that I knew others would appreciate as well. The response my readers gave to them, sharing and reporting them lead to this exciting oppurtunity, writing for a magazine that aims to create and strengthen a literary culture for Liberians. I enjoy writing for “Kwee” because it’s a very creative assignment, and it involves my favorite part of writing, the resarch it takes to get the facts straight. The creativity comes from unearthing little known stories about Liberia and crafting them in a way so as to broaden the narrative, history and story of Liberia. It can be a very challenging task, but as such it’s also the most rewarding. It allows me to go beyond e typical bloggers obsession with stuff I like into something that is important to a larger sphere of people. As such, in three short years of blogging, my Liberia posts and articles at Kwee represent, my whole reason for doing this.

Being the loyal Scorpio I am though, I always dance with who brought me. riquespeaks Is still of the utmost importance to me because of the immediacy and freedom it offers me as a writer. I also dig the time bomb nature of blogs, how something I wrote two years ago can blow up out of nowhere, and totally beyond my control. I anticipate 2016 to be my busiest writing year yet. My activities at “Kwee” will continue, as I strive to refine my articles and continue telling the story of Liberia in the larger world. 2016 is an election year, and I plan to do more of my own brand of political commentary, focusing not so much on policies and numbers, but on the thoughts behind political events and what they say about us as a nation. You can also of course look forward to plenty of reviews of the music, books, and movies that I feel set new templates for Black/African creative expression in 2016, as well as retrospectives on some of my old favorites. I will continue the column I introduced this year “Music for the Next ONE”, which deals with contemporary, non ’70s funk music. Some artists who will be featured soon are XL Middleton, Anderson Paak, and I will also continue to deal with under the radar funk from the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s, maybe with more passion than before. My appreciation for funky songs in the past 25 years or so continues to grow as I realize how much funk we had in a time the Funk was downplayed as a genre. To that I will be adding a new column that will deal with those funk classics of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Though I know records like “Brick House” and “Shining Star” were much enjoyed in their times, I think there is still more to be said about the big time funk. I’d like to collect some of these funk stories out there in one place, give my own impressions of the music, talk a little bit about the structure of these songs and their appeal musically, and discuss what their impact has been over the 50, 40, or 35 years they’ve been around. Including how they’ve been sampled, covered, or used in television and film. I also have many other things coming up, but I’ll let them develop before I speak on them. But here are a few things you will be able to read for sure on the blog this year:

“Ben Carson and Islam”: Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson made some remarks a few months ago about the possibility of a Muslim President that provided a teachable moment I felt America let drift off it’s radar screen. It’s far easier to show outrage, for or against, than to have a sensible discussion in America today. While I feel what Ben Carson said was unwise, I do feel it was based on a point of view about America that is legitimate. The only problem is when Dr. Carson points the finger at Muslims, he has three pointing back at American religious fundamentalists of all stripes. America missed a chance given to us by Dr. Carson’s comments to discuss religion, Democracy, and whether or not any religious fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, can serve this nation and retain the individual liberty and freedom of choice that is supposed to be a part of this nations soul. I will kick start that conversation here.

“20 years of Funk”: Rickey Vincent’s seminal book, “Funk: The Music, People, and Rhythm of the One” will turn 20 years old in 2016. This book is the reason I blog and write about Funk. I cannot underestimate it’s importance for me. Now, Funk was always my favorite music. It took me a long time to appreciate ballads, and the synth pop dance records of my youth could only satisfy me up to a certain point. I always loved Hip Hop, but musically it has it’s limits as well. But until Rickey Vincent did his book, I had no proper language to put James Brown, P Funk, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, Grover Washington Jr, and Michael Jackson in the same stream of music. The industry would call one Soul, the other R&B, the other Hip Hop, some Jazz, all to the detriment of the understanding of “funk.” I knew the groove but I didn’t know it represented such a thorough cultural system, really the cultural breakthrough and attitude of the decade of the 1970s. My understanding has grown from there into finding funk “in all aisles of the record store”. Now some of my favorite funk songs come from artists who cut in many different genres. I thank Rickey for this understanding he blessed me with and I will celebrate it this coming year.

“Dad and two Jazz Visions of Liberia”: I did an article in “Kwee” about two jazz records dedicated to Liberia, by the tenor saxophonists Curtis Amy, and the great John Coltrane. Since the article in “Kwee” was for the public at large, I didn’t get as personal on how those two records remind me of Dad and his time in Liberia in particular and why they are so special personally. In 2016 I will write about that here.

Review of “Midnight”: I’ve always felt, since I first read “The Coldest Winter Ever” that Sister Souljah’s book cycle was a major work. On my last birthday, 11-11-15, Souljah released the novel that saw her beloved hero character, Midnight, end up in jail. I hesitate to review the Midnight books because I enjoy reading them so much. In this review I will explore why I feel Souljah’s wide international sweep, ethical vision for African people’s, and unique viewpoints on Manhood outweigh her preachiness and often times prosaic and stilted language. Souljah’s “Midnight” represents her critique of America, as well as her solutions for Black people in America. I never cease to be amazed by the thoroughness of her vision and critique and the almost scriptural life system she lays out in her “Midnight” books. It’s almost like the comprehensive cultural critique of her old group Public Enemy put into book form.

“Pharrell and the Art of Interpolation”: the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit shined a light on a creative technique that has always existed in Hip Hop (and music as a whole). Pharrell Williams has been a master in his musical career of taking the feeling of older pieces of music without electronically sampling them or copying them wholesale. This series will be a celebration of his music and his influences, as well a s either a possible defense, or further indictment, depending on your outlook.

“Its Time for A Bill Russell Statue in Oakland”: We all know Gertrude Stein’s famous Oakland quote, “there’s no there, there.” While that quote is almost always taken out of context, sometimes we try our damnedest to make it true in The Town it would seem. One of the problems is we don’t preserve or create enough landmarks to represent our cities rich history and potentials. In Bill Russell, we have the greatest winning player in NBA history. As such, Mr. Russell is also a symbol of the journey of the black community to Oakland during the second great migration, which provided Oakland with the dynamic Black population that defined the city for half a century. As a great example of sportsmanship, dedication, humanitarianism and achievement, Bill Russell is one of the greatest people to come through the Oakland public school system. Honoring him here would symbolize the achievements of the time period during which Oakland became the most diverse city in America and a city talked about all across the globe.

“Miss Veronica”: a tribute to a dear friend and mentor I lost in 2015.

There is much more in store but that is just a little bit to whet the palette. I’d like to wish my readers much success and happiness in the coming year, thank you for your support and make sure to check in with me in 2016!

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Filed under Appreciation, Oakland-Bay Area

Music for the Next ONE 12/5/15: “Famous” by The Internet

I was introduced to the music of L.A based band The Internet by my good friend and musical associate Andre Grindle, when he wrote about their Nu-Funk banger “Dontcha”, produced by Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. That song is a funky tune that struck me for it’s fresh takes on “I Need a Freak” by Sexual Harrasment and “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, melded with a dry, Neo-Soul influenced studio sound, prominent phat drums, and singer Syd the Kid’s sensually soulful vocals. There was something about this combination of regular looking Black kids playing instrumental, Hip Hop inflected modern R&B Funk that activated my hope genes. And I’m not the only one, as their music became a favorite of most of my music loving friends, without any prior discussion among us about the bands dopeness. One of my favorite music podcasts, “The Music Snobs”, actually recorded an episode with the conversation starter of a theme, “Is the group The Internet the future of R&B?” As the band represents for me a package of good instrumental Funky R&B, with a dynamically modern, relate able and up to date image, with a slyly charismatic front in Syd the Kid, who breaks new ground with her boyish stud vibe. It’s not enough for a would be paradigm shifting Black band to simply play instruments, they must also make those instruments relate able to a young public nourished on drum machines and samplers, beyond the traditional instrumental mainstays of the church and school band room. Today’s Funk feature, “Famous”, is an uptempo stepper released as a digital bonus to their 2015 album, “Ego Death.”

“Famous” wastes no time jumping on the One, starting off with a lead in snare fill from the drummer, setting off the groove at a brisk tempo. The groove has an uptempo Afro-Latin syncopated funk feel, executed as crisply as a funky song from Earth, Wind & Fire, Barry White, M.J, or Sade. The bass line’s broken up syncopated beats combine to create a funky, quick, short and simple pattern. This bass pattern leaves space for the funky, low rhythm guitar part, which goes from single line to emphasizing the holes in the groove with chopping guitar chords. The drum part is recorded in the bands trademark crisp drum style! with. Sizzling hi hats and an anticipatory kick drum. Every fourth bar the instruments stop the groove a fraction of a beat early, creating a bouncy, stop/start groove.

At the chorus, the chords are extended out, the bass has more room to play notes, and the guitar strumming becomes more prominent, as the vocals are enhanced by a multi tracked choir of Syd the Kid’s. Syd flips the script with her lyrics on this one, making the traditional, “I can make you famous”, casting couch romantic jive from a female stud’s perspective. Syd sings “You have something special/I can tell just by the way you dance.” “if you knew girl/the things that I could do for your career.” The whole band punches out a James Brown horn like band “stab” to move from the chorus to the next verse, which is enriched by Fender Rhodes sustained chording. The music grows in nuance, as the guitar adds wahw ah slides up the neck to accentuate the holes in the groove. The song also goes into a slow/rubato/free time breakdown before kicking the groove back into high gear, with the rhythm guitar and drummer in particular showing up to show out.

What I appreciate so much about this joint is the usage of traditional groove band techniques in a modern context. Even a tremendously funky groove like “Uptown Funk” sounds like a “track”. In this song, The Internet steps toward mastering the Funk band ability to create a wall of sound with limited musicians, in this case, 5. The way the drummer kicks it off at the top, then goes to the ride cymbal to give the chorus a different texture, the contrast in bass feels on the verse and chorus, the ratcheting up of guitar activity as the band progresses, the horn stabs that spee rate the chorus from the following verses, the slowing down of the song and picking it back up to end with energy; all musical techniques of a tight, well rehearsed, BAND. They ain’t trying to emulate drum machines or sequenced loops on this one, they’re giving you a sound only a well rehearsed band can give you. And Syd puts a new sincerity to the line, “I can make you famous.” It all adds upto The internet taking this live band thing very seriously!


Filed under Music for the Next ONE