Category Archives: Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka “History”)

Examniations and opinions on historical matters that effect us today. This whole blog is pretty much historical, but this category will encompass articles that are almost purely dealing with past events

“The Band is his Orchestra/The Sounds of Delight”- A Riquespeaks feature series on Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones turned 84 earlier this month, in a year that has already seen the passing of such musical luminaries as Junie Morrison, Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jarreau and most recently, the cornerstone of Rock & Roll Chuck Berry. It is going on eleven years since we lost James Brown, who Quincy was three months older than, and we just lost Prince last year. It is now seven years since we lost the man who’s career is seen as Quincy’s foremost musical legacy, Michael Jackson. A few years ago, Quincy’s close friend and Montreaux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobbs passed on in a skiing accident. But Quincy remains a unifying figure, one who speaks to the history of African American music in the 20th century and how that tradition can be carried on into the future and recognized as a key contribution to world heritage.

One very interesting project that Q had on the table during the administration of President Barack Obama was to get music and American culture in general cabinet level recognition in the United States. He was not able to get that project accomplished, though I’m sure he gave it his all. Although that particular project was not successful, Quincy has used his own music and albums as a platform toward that very same aim.

Respect and appreciation for Quincy Jones was something I grew up with, outside of his production for Michael Jackson. His work with M.J might have been the main reason I was checking for this “old jazz guy” as a kid, but the facts are, my father was a serious Quincy Jones fan. I grew up hearing albums like “Quincy Jones plays the Hip Hits”, and “The Quintessence.” My father highly respected Q as somebody who took the mantle from the great jazz composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Carter, Gil Evans, and so many others. Q was highly proffesional, had trained at the future Berklee School of Music back when it was called “The Schillinger House”, and has also trained in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He also was one of the first Black arrangers to be involved on an ongoing basis with film scoring.

Through all of this, Q was developing a particular brand of musical magic that prepared him perfectly to deliver three of the best selling, most incredible examples of American popular music ever assembled, namely, “Off the Wall”, “Thriller”, and “Bad.” Now I don’t mean to make these three albums the focus of Q’s entire career that encompasses so much of whats good in American music, from Count Basie, to Frank Sinatra, to The Brothers Johnson, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. But what I will do with this series is talk about how the unique musical, experiential and spiritual gifts of Quincy Jones were present throughout his career on his solo albums, which really meant Michael Jackson was stepping into a rolling train when he and Q began work on “Off the Wall.” Which also made possible the later star studded success of “The Dude” and “Back on the Block.”

The different musical approaches of Q’s albums, from his skillful use of guest stars, his choice in cover songs, his incorporation of his portage’s compositions, his usage of tones such as flutes mixed with synthesizer leads, his dipping into the old blues and African styles, his jazz based pop language, and his strong rhythm sections manifest themselves on his pre “Off the Wall” and “The Dude” albums. So this particular series will focus on how Q innovated this genre of the producer led album, which is a genre that would later give us great musical works such as Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” Q really brought “The Producer” out as a star and musical artist in a way few have done. His skills as a producer were based in his skills as a composer and arranger, but when he reached the peak of his career he no longer needed to write or even arrange the tunes on his album. He mastered the very modern musical skills of setting the right tempos, choosing the right artists, both instrumentalists and vocalists, choosing the right songs, and a million other musical details that went beyond the magic of simply sitting at the piano or holding a guitar and writing a song. This magic of the producer is one that has been appreciated more and more by the music industry and the public at large in recent years. And it’s one I intend to explore in depth, from “Walking In Space” all the way to “Juke Joint”. Q’s success with MJ and his other R&B/pop hybrids in the 1980s was definitley not a fluke, but something masterminded by one of the greatest social musicians we’ve seen, the great Quincy Delight Jones!!!

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Give me My Flowers While I'm Alive, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition III: “Bra” by Cymande

One outstanding aspect of the musical climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the flowering in popularity of Black musical groups from parts of the Diaspora outside of the U.S.A. This trend was exemplified by acts and groups such as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Manu Dibango, The Beginning of the End, Mandrill, T-Connection, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela, and today’s subject, the Caribbean funk group Cymande. These groups, through their expansive African based rhythms and the incorporation of other grooves cultivated by Africans estranged from Africa, both paid tribute to deep African roots as well as exemplified the new flavors that had picked up in the numerous ports of call along the Transatlantic slave trade. Today’s song from Cymande, their classic “Bra”, is a song that has stood the test of time as a unique example of Caribbean Funk.

“Bra” is a song that derives it’s unique rhythmic effect from contrasting rhythmic feels. While the tempo is brisk, Steve Scipio played a bass line that pulled back on the time, while the horns long sustained notes create another feeling on top of that. You’re grabbed from the first notes of the intro, as Scipio plays a firm note on the first beat and another beat on the upbeat of beat 2. He’s only playing TWO notes in the fist bar of the pattern, but the feel and placement of them is enough to create a baseline the listener won’t soon forget. Immediately after the bass hits hard on the first beat, guitarist Patrick Patterson plays a sweet toned guitar slide followed by some fluttering trills, in a style very similar to the Curtis Mayfield guitar ballad style. The horn section then comes in on the upbeats, playing a very sharp, staccato arpeggio, walking up the notes of a major chord, then holding the top note of the chord for a whole two bars, before working their way down and sustaining another note. All of this is laid on top of Sam Kelly’s drums, which are playing a variation of Clyde Stubblefield’s stop and start drum groove made famous on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, with the rhythmic gaps/rests lining up with Scipio’s bass line. Working in concert with that are the conga drums of Pablo Gonsales. The result is a dipping, bouncing Caribbean funk groove with all the jerkiness of Island music, yet the pronounced “One” of mainland funk, with a sweet coating of melodic horns on top.

When the vocal comes in, the horns stop playing to give the vocals center stage. Joey Dee sings a tale of African redemption with a slight West Indian accent, with heavy reverb on his mic. “Time Has been lost for trying/we have been left outside/looking at passions dying/Emotions grow strong on time.” After which, the famous sing a long chorus is introduced, “But its all right/we can still go on.” Underneath the chorus the rhythm begins to get more active, as Scipio expands his bass line with class Jamerson/Rainey/Jemmont rhythmic business as Patterson also becomes more aggressive in his rhythm guitar strumming. The horn riff returns and on top of it all the percussionists start to spice up the groove with small rhythmic instruments, with the tambourine rattling like a snake for an instant. After the chorus the vital rhythmic bed continues on for a saxophone solo, under which the rhythm players introduce more variations. Midway through the song, the song breaks down to just bass playing along with percussion. The bassline on the break is an incredibly funky variation on the main rhythm, with the drums playing kick drums on all four beats and the percussionist teasing out melodic rhythms. The groove slowly builds up layer by layer until we get back to the top of the song for one last repetition of the main verse until the song comes to a close on a hard stomped out, “But its ALL RIGHT!”

“Bra” is a song that for a time I thought only my Dad and family knew, and I thought the group was African for the longest. Then in the ’90s Spike Lee used their songs on several movies of his that I enjoyed very much, including “Crooklyn” and “The 25th Hour.” I remember the first time I heard it on one of his films, excitedly showing it to my Dad and asking him what the name of that song was, because I’d heard it all my life but never knew anything about the group. It was later I found out Spike Lee’s connection to them made sense, because being a pan-Carribean group, with New York City’s strong Carribean influence, their music was very popular during the early day’s of Hip Hop, and “Bra” and their other fantastic hit, “The Message”, were considered early Hip Hop breakbeats that had even occasionally been sampled. Both songs are excellent examples of Post Civil Rights and Black Power era ’70s solidarity music, done by a group of Rastafarian funksters in England who’s origins spanned the Carribean. Their music as a whole very uniquely pulled together the Caribbean rhythms and Rastafarian ideology of Reggae with the hard edged vibe of American funk. Also there is much confusion over the title of this song, but “Bra” is simply the old school way of spelling a word that has been popular among Black people again in recent years, the shorthand “Bruh” for the word, “Brother.” This word is not only popular among American blacks (and now everybody else as well) but is also almost an official term of address in other Black countries, such as the great South African Hugh Masekela’s nickname, “Bra Hugh.” Also in Liberia where my mother is from it was a term of endearment, followed by the given name, for males you were close to. So the title of the song is in itself an example of the unique unifying ability of Cymande as a musical group that mustn’t be forgotten!

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Filed under Black Issues, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month I: “March of the Panther” by Mongo Santamaria

Mongo Santamaria is the one of the best artists to talk about during Black History Month because the cultural forces behind his music cover such a large part of the African diaspora. A native of pre Revolutionary Cuba, he learned music in his community based on rhythms that had come directly from Africa. It was said one of his grandfathers had in fact been a Yoruba priest. His composition, “Afro Blue”, was considered to be the first jazz standard based on an African “3 over 2” rhythm, and was popularized by John Coltrane. In the ’60s he moved from a straight Afro Latin jazz to a Boogaloo based melange of Afro Latin rhythms interlaid with the popular sounds of Soul and Funk. One album I grew up with during that period was an album he did called “Soul Bag”, that featured an incredible version of “Cold Sweat.” Today’s Black History Month special is a song from his 1970 LP, “Mongo 70”, entitled “March of the Panther.” This song was composed by guitarist Sonny Henry, who was the composer of Carlos Santana’s breakthrough hit, “Evil Ways”, which he originally recorded with Willie Bobo. “March of the Panther” is a funky, strident, striving number with the electric energy of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The song begins with an old school military march theme, featuring snare drum, tuba, flutes and horns playing in a style straight out of the Revolutionary War period. The allusion is very clear as the song transitions from music for that old school revolutionary army to a groove for the new school revolutionary army, The Black Panther Party, as the drummer plays a snare fill that leads to the groove. Bass Player John Hart plays a funky two note baseline supported by two pickup notes in the classic late ’60s, early ’70s style. There is a call and response relationship between the bass line and the electric piano, as the piano plays a syncopated rhythm chord figure after the bass plays its eighth notes. The drums play two strong kick drum notes in harmony with the bass but besides the cracking snare drum hits the drums are partially obscured by Mongo’s powerful African percussive figures, which are both pattern setting but also communicate in an improvisational way. These provide the setting for the rousing horn fanfare, which is a national anthem type melody that plays long, sustained notes, in the style of marching/military music, but also reminiscent of horn sections in African and Afro Latin bands, playing horn lines in unison. The bass and horn melody goes between two chords, as the bass line walks down to second chord sequence and the horns follow. After playing through that sequence the arrangement goes to a change part where the whole arrangement seems to come together in unity for the chorus, which is then followed by another vamp/statement of the main melody, with more attention paid to the trumpets, followed by another chorus that is again, heavier on the top end of the horns. After that a tenor sax solo is introduced, under which the bass player is given more freedom to improvise funky lines that support the solo. After the solo ends, Mongo’s conga playing becomes more pronounced, as he varies his rhythm and begins to take more of a leadership role, introducing the sections of the song with his drum flurries. The song grooves on and fades out, shifting back to a straight military march at the end.

“March of the Panther” took up the call that was made during the 1960s for new forms of Black art that would be the new symbols of the New Black Nation. In this case, it envisions itself as the theme for The Black Panther Party as the military arm of that nation. Mongo always foregrounded African/Black identity in his music, naming songs after Yoruba Gods and Black figures such as Malcom X. It was amazing for me to discover this funky song that took the idea of a military march and remade it for the age of The Panthers. The song itself is a good example of uptempo, super rhythmic, boogaloo inspired early 70s funk, in fact it would work very well over a montage movie scene about The Panthers or activists set in that time period. It was said that Herbie Hancock played his classic “Watermelon Man” for Mongo after Mongo had said he couldn’t see the connection between Afro Cuban and Afro American music. Upon hearing the funky tune, Mongo immediately got excited and began playing along with it. Of course, in Mongo’s hands, “Watermelon Man” went on to become one of the biggest hits in jazz history. It was this ability to connect the African roots, modern Afro Cuban music, jazz, and the then current funk and soul vibes that gave Mongo the unique place in Black music history and Black culture that he occupies. And that is one reason, along with his excellent musicianship, that a figure like Mongo deserves more consideration when contemplating the bonds of Africans in the Americas. And “March of the Panther” stands tall as an anthem for the Party that is no longer that brings together the energy of the whole African diaspora for the long waged fight for total prosperity and liberation!

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Filed under All That Jazz, Black Issues, FUNK, Music for the Next ONE, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Special

Black History Month is admittedly one of those things my opinion of has vacillated on through the course of my life. When I was a young child in school I enjoyed it more than anything else in my school curriculum. I have always been the type of individual who views the acquisition of knowledge with the attitude of exploration and discovery. And Black history, both in Africa and America having the “Hidden” quality that it does, due to suppression, ignorance, arrogance the profitability of subjugation and domination. My parents always had a strong sense of Black history simply from their backgrounds, my father being born in the Depression era south and being active in the Civil Rights movement, and my mother being a Liberian with a rich understanding of both Africa and her country’s roots in being established as a haven from American slavery and white supremacy. Still, I don’t think the majority of Black parents want to overburden their children with sad and negative messages. So even with my parents having the knowledge of things that they did, some of the most substantial information would come out when they were watching and responding to news items.

I was fortunate enough to have Asian and white teachers in Oakland, California who were very responsive and understanding of the predominantly Black demographics of their school, under the guidance of Mrs. Kelly, a strong Black Principal, to inject Black and multi cultural information into the curriculum. I still remember my kindergarten Teacher Ms. Huen giving us red envelopes for Chinese New Year, which is also this month, and marks the return of my birth sign, the Rooster!

So I always enjoyed learning about Carter G Woodson, Lewis Latimer, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B DuBois, Madame C.J Walker, and the numerous other luminary figures who against all odds contributed to America and kept Black people alive to get to the point we are today. Many of their inventions and discoveries proved to me a truth my father related to me from his experience down south, that a great many things were invented by very hands on Black people who were tasked with getting the work done and took it upon themselves to find an easier way to get those tasks accomplished.

Then when I grew up, in the Def Comedy Jam ’90s, I got innundated with the same jokes as everybody else, about how they “gave Black people the shortest month.” Which totally overlooks the contributions of Carter G Woodson and the fact that Black History Month is a BLACK invention. More recently the line has been “Black history is all year round”, which is one that I wholeheartedly agree with and try to practice on this blog and my other writing activities. However, just as with holidays, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other events, there is a reason Human beings choose dates to commemorate things. There is a great power to Human ritual that we sometimes forget in our modern fragmented world, a certain purification of purpose and inspiration. And it’s in that spirit that I’m adding a supplement to “Music 4 the Nxt 1” in honor of Black history month. I will still review funky songs but the scope will expand in terms of era, genre, and locale. I will cover songs of inspiration, songs in honor of Black historical figures, and songs that were just breakthroughs or inspiring to Black people at any given point of time. These grooves will come from Reggae, Soul, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz and many other genres. I hope that my readers enjoy it and that it reminds you of the struggles, accomplishments, joys, pains and exultations of peoples of African descent and why it is critical our position continue to be strengthened for the good of all.

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Tommie Smith, Athletic Protest, and the Greatness of the Raiders

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This past Monday night was a very special one as both a Raider fan and a Black history buff. My hometown Oakland Raiders went down to Mexico City to play a Monday Night Football contest and defeated the Houston Texans. This was special on several levels. For one, it was a unique experience to see an Oakland Raider game played in Mexico. Many of the most die hard Raider fans in the Bay Area and L.A are of Spanish descent, including many close friends, and some of them even made it to the game. I could tell from the social media posts they were sharing that to be able to explore the country of their ancestors while also enjoying their hometown team play (and win) a football game is an experience that touched them deeply. It was also special validation of the Raiders to win a big international game on Monday Night Football. During the Raiders decades of dominance in the 1970’s and ’80s they were especially known for their excellence when the lights shone the brightest, on prime time Monday night games. Those Monday night games exposed the nation to the pirates, bikers, soul brothers, renegade drinkers, central casting running backs (Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson), and reckless hitters who together created the Raider mystique. Winning on an internationally televised stage legitimatizes what we’ve known in the Bay Area all year, The Raiders truly can play! But Raiders owner Mark Davis did something else that made a very powerful statement.

Colin Kapernick, starting QB for the 49ers has drawn both haters and lovers for his National Anthem protests this football season, with some even dubiously claiming they are behind the NFL’s current ratings drop. Those protests have evolved from simply remaining seated to taking a dignified knee, and he’s been joined in them by members of his own team, as well as players on other teams and in other sports. The motivation behind them has been the nearly unceasing stream of officer involved, racially motivated shootings by police officers against Black men and women during the past few years, which leads back to the legacy of Jim Crow and America’s history of racial repression. With Kap’s proud Afro and Ethiopianesque visage, both his image and his stance remind one of the Black sports heroes of the 1960s in particular, people like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammed Ali, and many other athletes of that time. He has been counseled in his sports activism by a Soul Survivor veteran of the Civil Rights and Black Power days, Dr. Harry Edwards, who organized a legendary boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games.

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Those games are legendary for the manner in which they highlighted the racial tensions of the time. Dr. King was killed in April, and America endured it’s largest scale racial rioting in its history. The phrase “Black Power”, unleashed by Stokely Carmichael right next to Dr. King in 1966 had resounded with a powerful echo in the worldwide Black community, and James Brown had already released his anthemic “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The Black Panthers had been around for two years and were fixtures on the nightly news, and every force in Black life, from the right, left, and center were being galvanized on where they stood on the new wave of Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Third World Liberation Black militant thought that had finally come to the forefront.

It was in this environment that Dr. Harry Edwards called for a boycott by Black Athletes of the ’68 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Muhammed Ali had already provided the greatest example of a star Athlete resisting racial and governmental tyranny by refusing his induction to the draft in 1967. By the late ’60s professional sports had emerged as possibly the largest positive reflection of Black people in the United States and increasingly the world, with the way paved by stars such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Don Barksdale, Woody Strode, the great Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, and many others. Many of these stars were very explicitly socially and politically active, but even those who were not were very useful to demonstrate the fact that Black people had the ability to do great things in modern society. Back when Jesse Owens owned the 1936 Olympics, it was suggested by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi propagandists that “Blacks lacked the intelligence to run”, which is an absurd claim considering people of African descent are known for our athletic prowess today. But it represents the totalitarian thinking on race that gripped the 20th century and would exist today if not for the obvious exploits of so many great Black people.

What made a larger impression on history was not the boycott, but two Bay Area sprinters who actually competed in the games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Gold and Bronze winners of the 200 meter race. Their black glove raised protest, feet shorn in black socks standing on the podium in victory, provided possibly the greatest visual of the Black Power era, an image that matched Brown and Mayfield and Franklin’s music and Malcom X’s speeches. This action, though celebrated now, resulted in death threats and ostracism from the Olympic and Track and Field establishments.

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History has been very kind however to the legacies of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Raider owner Mark Davis added to that on Monday Night. He invited Dr. Tommie Smith to fly with the team to Mexico City to light the torch that a Raider great lights before every home game in honor of his father, Al Davis. This was significant on several levels because Tommie Smith (who had a very brief NFL career) never played for the Raiders but is like the Raiders, a Bay Area legend who is a symbol for standing for what you believe in. The man who’s torch he lit that night, Al Davis, was perhaps the supreme maverick of NFL history, a man who drafted a Black Quarterback in the first round and hired one of his former players, Art Shell, to be the first Black NFL Head Coach in 1989. Davis was also known to be one of the first men in professional football (along with Bill Nunn Sr. of the Pittsburg Steelers) to regularly scout the HBCU’s, where he found Hall of Famers like Gene Upshaw and Art Shell.

The symbolism and the reality of this action shocked me for several reasons. While I know Al Davis and the Raiders have always been a very progressive team socially and culturally, they are also a very “blue collar” team. In fact, Im pretty sure that the small numbers of people who voted for Donald Trump in the Bay Area had many Raider fans among them. But the Raiders also represent a powerful coming together of Black, White, and Mexican working class people in the East Bay Area of California, other places like Los Angeles and the rest of the country. The Raiders have strong Mexican associations such as their legendary theme song, and the original name of the team was slated to be “The Senors” before a little girl suggested the name “Raiders.” They wear Black, just as Smith and Carlos did in Mexico City in 1868, and just as that other great Oakland institution, The Black Panthers, and another one, The Hell’s Angels. And they also always had the renegade vibe of the Hells Angels with players such as Ken Stabler, John Mutusack, Ted Hendricks and many other Raider greats.

The Raiders did this in a Bay Area sports world that has always been as progressive and nonconformist as the Bay Area as a whole. The Bay Area has had wild sports visionaries like Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who clad his team in the perfect “Have a Nice Day” 1970s uniform of Green and Gold while winning three straight World Series. It also had my favorite coach, the visionary Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, who elevated offensive football to a science and also instituted a minority coach apprenticeship program in the NFL that led to Black NFL Head Coaches like Dennis Green, Marvin Lewis and Ray Rhodes. Walsh did this while employing and being advised by the organizer of that ’68 Olympic boycott, Dr. Harry Edwards, who also advises Colin Kaepernick almost 50 years later in 2016.

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In the end, Tommie Smith’s Al Davis torch lighting was an incredible moment for the NFL, The Raiders, Black athletes and the legacy of Bay Area sports. When Colin Kaepernick began his protests, I had the feeling no Oakland Raiders would be able to participate as freely in the protests. In fact, two players did raise a fist before a game and caused some friction among the team. Mark Davis has stated that he did not mind his players protesting but did not want them to do so, while in uniform, which he felt would tarnish the Raider brand. However he had met Tommie Smith through his father when he was in college and had a great appreciation for what those men did on that day. The Raider fan base is unique, probably containing both Donald Trump supporters with Black militants and Obama supporters, and some of those same Mexican Americans and native Mexicans Trump wants to build a wall to exclude. What unites them is an independent, hard working, that provides an example of how united America will be once the old divisions can no longer be used to run games, which is what the best of sports does as a whole. While I don’t want Dr. Tommie Smith’s torch lighting to be used to suggest all Black struggle is a thing of the past and not relevant when modern day athletes express their desire to see social change happen today, I applaud it as the most “Raider” thing I’ve seen in too long of a time!

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#SummerofJB I: J.B’s antitdote to ’70s Malaise

President Jimmy Carter gave a speech in 1979, which many felt doomed his Presidency, which has popularly been known as the “malaise speech” ever since, which is interesting because he never mentioned the word “malaise” once in the speech. The speech was based on a book called “The Culture of Narcissism : American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” by Christopher Lasch. The book theorized that phenomenon such as Americans apetite for things such as oral sex proved that Americans had been babied during the ’50s and ’60s, and really, for the whole 20th century, leading to a people now incapable of making the types of sacrafices that made the country great. Carter translated this into a speech about how America had lost the can do, optimistic spirit it used in World War II and its aftermath to become the most powerful industrial nation the world had yet seen. I think this speech in particular is one reason my parents and other people I grew up around always said President Carter was too honest for politics. All of this was done in an effort to get Americans to consume less oil, as it was becoming clear America’s dependence on OPEC oil combined with the Muslim countries new fundamentalism would spell the end of the United States ability to dictate to other countries. This speech was seen as one of the primary reasons Carter got thumped by Ronald Wilson Reagen in the 1980 election, or at least, the attitude contained within. Carter was asking the United States to do something it was not ready to do, to limit itself in order to remain self sufficient and powerful. The counter message coming from Ronald Reagen was that this was fundamentally un American. Accepting limits in American life, mainly the power to consume, would be like surrendering to Germany and Japan in 1941. Reagen brought a Cowboy optimism that was the exact opposite of President Carter in style, and truthfully, more in line with the American spirit.

The Godfather of Soul James Brown, ever hip to cultural currents, gave his “Malaise Speech” four years before President Carter gave his, in 1974. Inflation and gas supply were still a problem then, but added on top of that, one of the biggest crisis of leadership America has yet faced, the Watergate scandal, had replaced Richard Nixon, who J.B endorsed in 1972, with Gerald Ford, who the Godfather found to be a total drag, as did the rest of the country. The difference between J.B’s indictment of American malaise and President Carter’s is that the Godfather laced his with one of his phattest grooves, one that has stood the test of time in funk and hip hop.

The ’70s are largely seen today as a decade of breezy fun, disco, cocaine, free sex, good rock, funk and soul music, and a kind of continutation or day party for the party that started in the late ’60s. It was that, but it also was a decade where American political consensus had been rocked by the protests of Civil Rights, Womens Rights, Black Power, Immigrant and Indian Rights, and finally Gay Rights. At the same time there was little consensus at home, the end of Colonialism and the Third World Revolution raised the prices on commodoties. America was very much an old dad trying to deal with the younger generations. Gas prices and prices on all kinds of products went up.

Amazingly, the Godfather of Soul James Brown, was toward the end of one of the best periods of his career in 1974. The Funk that had been introduced with “Cold Sweat” in 1967 and been supercharged by Bootsy and Phelps Collins in 1970 had become fully mature by 1974. J.B had an incredible run of early ’70s hits, including “Get on the Good Foot”, “Hot Pants”, “Sex Machine”, “Soul Power”, “Get up, Get Into It, Get Involved”, “King Heroin”, “Super Bad”, and many others.

But even with that amazing string of hits, there were problems. For one, J.B’s 1968 Black pride anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, seemed to doom him on the pop charts, as he did not crack the top ten of those charts until 1986’s “Living in America”, even while dropping generation defining funk songs that hit #1 R&B. Mr. Brown’s son, Teddy, died in a car crash, and the mom & pop record label he dominated, King Records in Cincinati, got bought out by a German company, Polygram. Yes, Mr. Brown was in the situation many American workers were, going from working for Americans to working for a large multinational conglomerate, and he came to feel they didn’t understand him or his music. Also, there were tax problems. And to top it off, he was taking hits in the black community for endorsing a man they viewed as their clear enemy, Richard M Nixion, in 1972.

Brown, a Gold Glove boxer in his youth, would never in his life go down without swinging though. 1973-74 feature some of his biggest and best known hits, from Fred Wesley and The J.B’s family reunion classic “Doin It to Death”, to “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, to “The Payback.” But on “Funky President” he addresses the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

The “Funky President” of the song is President Gerald Ford, a transitional figure who is mainly known in pop culture for falling off airplanes, which was potrayed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Brown mentioned that he thought Ford was a good man, but every time he spoke people seemed to get depressed. Ford would only serve out the end of Nixons term before losing to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Brown’s “Funky President” deals with what a drag the country was becoming, but it proposes super heavy funk as a motivator and togetherness as the antidote. The track itself is funky, but different for James Brown, when you listen to the funk of “Superbad” or “Get on the Good Foot” or “Soul Power.” Maybe the reason for this is because Brown uses studio musicians instead of his J.B’s on the track. The sound of the track is also different, being recorded at Sound Ideas studio in New York City. James Brown was known for recording in various places whenever the mood hit him rather than holing up in one studio as many other great acts do. The sound on “Funky President” is clean and well seperated, and I want to go out on a limb and say I think it utilizes heavy overdubbing as well, which was not the general wasoy Brown recorded. Brown preffered to get everybody in the room together and cut the song from top to bottom live with minimal fixing of mistakes. It’s almost as if the political plea of “Funky President” demanded a clean, apple pie All American funk sound so the message wouldn’t be lost.

The band was made up of well known studio musicians such as David Sanborn, Joe Farrell, Joe Beck, and Gordon Edwards. Very interestingly, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis is also on the track, which is interesting because he was James Browns arranger during the early period of J.B’s funk in the late ’60s and hadn’t worked with Mr. Brown for some timewhen “Funky President” was recorded. The drummer, who must be noted, is Allan Schwarzberg, a white Jewish guy, and not one of J.B’s regular drummers. That’s signifigant because “Funky President”‘s drum pattern is one of the most sampled in hip hop, and it didn’t even come from one of Brown’s regular drummers, like Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, or Melvin Parker. Conga Player Johnny Griggs is the only player from J.B’s regular band listed.

The music itself is unique for J.B’s heavy funk period. It’s very clear, clean, in control, yet heavy. It seems tailor made for doing the classic ’70s dances. The sound is also very studio centric as opposed to Brown’s famous live sound. The song begins with a super heavy, phat drumbeat from Allan Schwarzberg. The drum beat starts with a snare drum fill that would be a favorite of hip hop samplers such as the Legendary Marley Marl. The drum part is really just a super funky 8th note pattern, very well recorded and prominent in the mix. The combo of the drums, the wah wah guitar, and J.B saying “Funky”, is the jelly the hip hop samplers would go crazy over in the ’80s, but we must remember, the original hip hop D.J’s , Kool Herc, Afrika Baambaata and Grandmaster Flash were playing this joint when it came out as well. The bass line is very simple and funky, leaving space for the drums, the incessant and almost sequence like guitar riff, and a very involved horn chart that serves as J.B’s back up singers. The song also has very funky breaks that allow Brown to really emote.

J.B describes the litany of problems facing America in the 1970s He says the “Stock Market is going up, the jobs going down.” That phenomenon the Godfather mentioned is one that affects America even today. Basically, whats good for the capitalist class who run business and own stock, is not always good for working folks. “Productivity”, which could mean cutting jobs, increasing hours, cutting benefits, etc, is good for a company’s stock, but usually not the working man. That can be seen in the recovery from the 2008 “Great Recession”, as the stock market has rebounded fully while jobs have not.

J.B speaks of taxes going up. Browns tax problems have been well documented, and the saddest thing about them is he thought the political work he’d done would save him from the I.R.S, but generally it didn’t. Brown uses blues like lyrics to describe how tight things were, saying “I changed from a glass/now I drink from a paper cup, getting bad.”

But this is no blues. This song is a funky song of motivation. At the heart of the song lies James Brown’s advice for Black America in particular, and it’s one he consistently advocated and practiced in his own life. The Godfather tells us:

“Lets get together, get some land/Raise our food like the man/Save our money like the mob/Put up the factory on the job.”

The Godfathers economic plan is one that had been espoused by Booker T Washington, Marcus Garvey and The Honorable Elijah Muhammed for years. In the America of 1974, with rising commodity prices, gas shortages and coming off the Vietnam War, James Brown advocated self sufficiency for Black people in particular. Just four years after this song in 1978, the Civil Rights Movement would come to an official historical en with the Bakke decision. J.B, being a man with his ear to the street as well as experiencing the pinch in his own life, knew the outlook was bleak for both America and Black people in particular. The program he advocated in particular would have been a great boon to the black community going through the 1970s into the 1980s, with Republican Governments hell bent on rolling back Civil Rights gains as well as a country with a lessened ability to dictate terms to foreign countries.

But Brown went for that ass in delivering this message. Strangely, right after this political rap, J.B goes back to talking about sex. He talks about praising the Lord, and then says “Get sexy, sexy, get funky and dance.” Love me baby, Love me nice/Don’t make it once/but can you make it twice/I like it.” Then he goes right from that to his encouragement, telling people to “Turn on their funk motors.” Its almost as if the religious faith and the sex are the things Brown is proposing as the spiritual and physical fuel people need to get up offa that thang and face the challenges of the times. He ends this verse with encouragement, telling folks “Hey , give yourself a chance to come through/tell yourself I can do what you can do.”

The phat, well recorded Allan Schwarzberg James Brown drumbeat would go on to become a staple in Hip Hop. In the early ’80s the Sugarhill house band would actually recreate the beat with live musicians for people like Spoonie Gee to rap over. In the sample heavy late ’80s, Marley Marl would sample other drums and use them to play the pattern Schwarzberg played on classic cuts such as “Eric B. is President.” J.B would go on to have other hits, but 1974 would be his last year as a consistent hitmaker, with “Funky President” getting all the way up to #4 on the R&B charts. He’d have other monsters like “Bodyheat” and “Get Up Offa That Thang” a few years later, but “Funky President” stands tall in the Brown ouvere for it’s funky beat laid down with studio musicians and the funky political stump speech that got people out of their malaise rather than bathed them in it, with the true “Funky President”, James Brown himself accomplishing something Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagen could not!

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Filed under Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Music Matters, Politrix, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

#SummerOfJ.B: A Funky Introduction.

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The debut on August 1, 2014 of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” starring Chadwick Boseman, Jill Scott, and Viola Davis, allows hard core James Brown fans like myself a chance to reassess his legacy. When the Godfather passed in 2006, there was a suitable outpouring of emotion represented by his tributes at the Apollo Theater and at James Brown Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. Yet, Brown had survived Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Little Willie John, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and many other artists of his generation who were essential in providing a musical soundtrack for the social changes that took place in the latter half of the 20th Century. Because of his longevity and the massive reach of his impact, Mr. Brown became someone one could almost take for granted.

The true appreciation of Mr. Brown for me began early, but still somewhat later than it should have. As an ’80s baby, I grew up with The Godfathers descendants such as Prince, and Michael Jackson. The large funk bands were generally seen as on the decline, excepting Cameo, The Gap Band, and survivors like Kool & The Gang and The (Lionel Ritchie less) Commodores. Groups like New Edition had the youth audience. New soul flavors were coming over from the United Kingdom. My parents were huge James Brown fans but they were also musical progressives. In the home I was hearing a lot of Grover Washington Jr, Miles Davis, Sade, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, George Benson, recent late ’70s Commodores, Herbie Hancock electric funk, Steps Ahead, and a whole lot of Reggae. My older brothers and sisters were playing Prince and Hip Hop, plus great ’80s singles like “Hangin On a String” by Loose Ends. On lazy Saturdays or Sundays Dad would break out the reel to reel machine and play Coltrane, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, old Miles Davis, Eddie Harris, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Diz and Bird, and many programs he D.J’ed for VOA’s “Sound of Jazz” program.

Somehow in all of this, I only saw and heard fleeting glimpses of James Brown. Of course, J.B was very busy at this time, recording “Unity” with Afrika Baambaata, having one of his biggest pop hits ever in “Living in America”, touring all around the world, and eventually, getting into trouble. But somehow, in Oakland, California, a city that had been finally taken over politically by its black majority, and which had always been a key stop on the James Brown Express, I didn’t actually hear too much J.B in my earliest years.

All of this seemed to change around 1987, 1988, which is right when Hip Hop reasserted James Brown’s influence on both their music and the culture. The early Hip Hop D.J’s in New York used all manner of James Brown tunes to rock their parties. What sometimes gets lost is, many of these James Brown songs were contemporaneous to the early hip hop parties. For instance, in 1974 when the first Hip Hop parties were held, James Brown had singles such as “The Payback”, “Doin it to Death”, and “Funky President.” He also rocked the concert in Zaire (now the Congo) that went along with the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title fight known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, of which this year is the 40th anniversary. James pop profile dimminished each year after that, but he still had thunderous hits like 1976’s “Get Up Offa That Thang” (which provided the horn blasts for Boogie Down Production’s classic “South Bronx”). He was a fixture on the R&B charts even in the late ’70s, as viewings of ’70s episodes of Soul Train will attest to. Records like “The Spank”, “For Goodness Sakes Take a Look at Those Cakes”, “Eyesight”, “A Man Understands”, “Bodyheat” and “Give Me Some Skin”. These records captured the essence of the J.B groove in the high point of the great funk bands such as EWF, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Commodores, Kool & The Gang, The Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, Graham Central Station, and many other funky artists in that funky decade. A glance at Soul Train episodes post 1975 will show you how whether a song went to the top of the charts or not, James Brown funk always did what it was designed to do, get people up!

Of course, around 1988-1989 Mr. Brown came into my attention for the troubles he was having with the law at that time. I’d seen him earlier do his cape routine on the special, “Motown Goes Back to the Apollo.” It was kind of hard to seperate James Brown, his impact, and how his music still related to the modern thing, when he was placed alongside his peers and rock and roll legends such as Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and the Four Tops. All of these artists were great, influnetial artists, but their music and social impacts were not about to reignite like Mr. Brown’s was, in the late ’80s.

I remember watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom and seeing Mr. Brown going to jail and her talking about “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and James Browns concert in Monrovia, Liberia, and how she loved his hair. My dad talked about James Brown and the J.B’s and his favorite songs, like “You Can Have Watergate (But Gimmie Some Bucks and I’ll be straight), and “There Was a Time” with it’s “Groove Maker”, and “Doin it to Death”, and J.B’s career as an organist on Smash records.

Then, my real immersion into hip hop began. Earlier Hip Hop in the ’80s had used drum machines to contstruct spare, original beats, inspired by older funk and rock, but not directly sampling the recordings. By the late ’80s it seemed the world was a constant barrage of raw, James Brown beats. On every side of hip hop I liked, JB was there, from Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Aint No Joke”, to Salt & Pepa hollering “Pick up on this”, from Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”, to The 45 King’s “900 Number.”

My primary two influnces in hip hop, disparate as they were, both trafficed in James Brown. Public Enemy and M.C Hammer covered different sides of the man’s music and legacy. Public Enemy sampled bits and pieces of many recordings to create their own new funk. Chuck D and Flavor Flav traded off vocals in the manner of James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Their music focused on street conditions and black empowerment, just as Mr. Brown did on “Dont Be a Dropout”, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, “Mind Power”, “Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved”, “Soul Power”, “Funky President”, “Reality”, and many other songs. The controversy they generated at times in their career could call to mind the social currency James Brown had, the way he was black listed after “Say it Loud” for instance.

M.C Hammer, my Oakland hometown hero, represented another side of James Brown legacy. While Public Enemy were consumate performers as well, Hammer actually was a dancing machine, with a large band, back up dancers, and the theatrical presentation that Mr. Brown and other soul era performers bought. He also was largely successfull and admired for his business acumen, as Mr. Brown was in his day, when he was known for owning 4 radio stations and a Lear Jet. Hammer built on and expanded on the R&B influenced side of Hip Hop performing, represented over the years by Afrika Baambaata, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Whodini, and Kool Moe Dee. This style has pretty much always lost out in hip hop to the spare RUN DMC style of M.C’s walking back and forth across the stage, which some people feel is more pure and reflective of Hip Hop’s New York City park origins. But there are always people like Hammer who bring the R&B glitter and excitement to their performances as well. Hammer though, was the best and the most compelling.

Hammer also represented the other side of James Browns social concern. If Public Enemy was pegged as the radical side, Hammer represented the side that was about stopping the violence in the urban neighborhoods, getting an education, going to work, owning businesses, and building. Of course, in a post Civil Rights, post Black Power world, Hammer, who was from the city of the Black Panthers, had a millitant side too, but that is not what people saw. Hammers insistence on not cursing because he was a role model for kids was also from the James Brown book. Together, Public Enemy and Hammer represented all those sides of J.B.

But Browns impact was not limited to them. Somehow, as a little kid in the ’80s I didn’t know Michael Jackson and Prince were descendants of J.B as well, maybe the TOP two. M.J maybe took James Browns performance based ethic to it’s highest height, and Prince expanded on his role as a musical innovator of funk, by also incorporating the innovations of Brown’s contemporaries, like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, P-Funk, Al Green, and many others. But M.J and Prince were able to inhabit a whole other rarified air for black pop stars, delivering music that was authentic and yet widely popular at the same time. But somehow, it would take much later for me to understand the high tech, futuristic funky pop of The Thriller and His Royal Badness as fruits from the James Brown root.

Arsenio Hall’s show was key in exposing me to James Browns performances. I remember pestering my Dad about Brown, and pops breaking out the vinyl to “Live At the Apollo Vol 2” and “Doin it to Death”. He laughed as he recounted stories of Richard Nixon and Watergate. And he told me about a huge audience in Monrovia, Liberia singing along to “Hey, Hey, I Feel all Right.”

My appreciation for Mr. Brown would grow throughout the ’90s, as I purchased CD compilations and eventually vinyl albums. A James Brown concert was even my first concert ever, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, with my parents and my best friends, Jesse and Frank. The appreciation of Mr. Brown has been something I’ve bonded with over many people, and his determination, drive, attention to appearance, independence, pride and many other aspects of the man continue to inspire me to this day.

This series will cover various aspects of James Brown’s music and career in anticipation of the August 1 release of the “Get on Up” movie. It will continue to run for the duration of the summer, which will take us into around October on the West Coast. James Brown’s funk music is very direct and does not take much thought to get into. But James Brown’s life, career, impact, and the specific messages he put out there are very rich subjects that point to a very unique viewpoint on America, Black people in America, and the world. James Brown was a poor sharecropers son who grew up in a Whorehouse and was a Juevenile Delinquent, who rose from that to become one of the most impactful, classiest entertainers of all time. As such, he had a unique message to share. And he was never one of those singers who felt they should “just sing.” Brown was unique because although his show definitely provided escapism, through its funky grooves, slick outfits and large dynamics, it was an escapism of, or through IMMERSION. James Brown, in that fine Black tradition, immersed you in reality, and sometimes troubles, to get you to go past and transcend them. Or as he would say, “Get Up offa that thang, and dance till you feel better!” As Chadwick Boseman brings him to life across the celluloid screen, now is as fine a time as ever to look at a portion of what Mr. Brown did and how he did it.

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Filed under Appreciation, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")