Tag Archives: Funk

The ’87 Sound: “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire

By 1987, Ronald Wilson Reagen had been serving as the 40th President since January of 1981. He’d already enacted several major tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, while slashing social programs and increasing military spending. And it seemed for a brief moment in ’87, during the Iran Contra trials, that the evidence existed to bring Reagen down for good. That was not to be and Reagen would hold on to pass the baton on to his Vice President in 1989 to continue what Chuck D called, “12 years of R&B (Reagen & Bush).

The effects of Reagen’s rhetoric and political policies were not lost on musicians during the ’80s, though the decade is typified as having less musical social commentary than the preceding ones. Many songs such as Run DMC’s “Hard Times” focused on the challenges of making it for the average working person in the Reagen era. Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most musically and socially inspirational groups of the 1970s joined this discussion in ’87 with their R&B smash hit, “System of Survival.”

EWF was due for a comeback by ’87. Their prior album, “Electric Universe”, was considered a disappointment by many fans of the group, in particular, because most felt that the electronic orientation of the music smothered the group’unique musical personalities.

“System of Survival” is a song that EWF came by through unusual means. While recording in San Francisco, a songwriter named Skylark placed the demo tape for the song on the front of Maurice White’s Cadillac. Liking what they heard, the band recorded the song. “System of Survival” would prove to be EWF’s biggest hit in many years, hitting #1 on the R&B and Dance charts. Again, proving how alienated the pop charts were from many veteran Black Funk/R&B artists during the ’80s, this #1 R&B song charted at #60 pop.

The song begins with an announcer’s​ voice saying, “The biggest unanswered​​d question is where is the money.” A statement that could relate to any number of socio-political​ problems! After which, a serious electro funk groove kicks in. The groove has the typical big ’80s drums, but the snare is much more live sounding than most drum parts of the era. The main key to the groove is the main rhythmic/melodic element, a lead synth line playing a rhythmic pentatonic figure. That figure is played on several synths and delayed, so that it creates a hyperactive, jittery wall of sound. Its also backed by funky rhythm guitar playing that accents the busy synth groove. The song title, “System of Survival” is sung by Maurice and Phillip, but also supported by a Vocoder voice.

The song goes on to lay out the common man’s plight during the ’80s, with Maurice singing “The Human race/is running over me”, with Phillip awnsering, rather unusually at that time in his lower voice, “I punch a clock at 9 to 5/just tryin to make a living.” “A plastic face/on satellite TV/says life is full of give and take/he’s taking and I’m giving.”

Maurice goes on to say “So I dance!” Which is answered,​ “It’s my system of survival!” The band here affirms dance, and music, as a survival strategy, a thought that goes very deep into the heart of Black experience in America. The metaphor could also be extended to anything which one enjoys and does well, which reaches the aesthetic and spiritual condition of dance. Philip goes back into his classic falsetto to sing “At times it’s the only way/Im gonna make it through this day.” After which EWF demands “Everybody get up!!! Do your dance! Stay alive!!!”

After that call, the groove shifts to a funky interlude, with bass being introduced. Prior to this the groove was skeletal, based on drums and the trebly sounds of the synths. In addition to the newfound bass, EWF’s new horn section schorches the top of the jam with a funky horn line, while Sheldon Reynolds, the new member, laid down a funky sustained, “Chicken Grease” guitar part of steady sixteenth strums.

The next verse goes on to find the band singing about the unsafe nature of the streets, after which the bass makes its presence felt once again. The song goes out on a long jam with more political news snippets, and a raging, fiery saxophone solo, backed by a more full band sound that includes bass and guitars while pushing the insistent synthesizer sequence more to the background.

1987 would see an increasing number of Black groups rekindle the fire of past years in talking about the social issues that grip the world. It was big for Earth, Wind & Fire in particular, a group that had always represented spirituality, togetherness, a strong sense of ancestry and history, as well as love, to come out so hard with “System of Survial”. The amazing thing for me about the song is the way they seemed to speak for the common, adult middle-aged​ person in the changing world of that day. They spoke for people just trying to work and get by and deal with all the B.S while still trying to enjoy life and hold on to some sense of hope. That’s why this song stands out as one of the most realistic and pratical in the entire EWF song book. And their usage of music and dance to get through rough times validates the reason for the groups entire existence.

“System of Survival” was a favorite of my Dad in particular, and I always think about him when I hear this track and watch this video. And the video is one of the best of its day, featuring people of all ages and walks of life doing the dances that they know and that bring them joy. “Touch the World” was a wonderful comeback for EWF that returned them to their positon as socially conscious yet musically wonderful Funkmasters. And this song itself became a part of many people’s “Systems of Survival” back in ’87, as proven by its chart and sales success!

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“The ’87 Sound”: “Sign O the Times” by Prince

Of all of the songs that come to mind when I think of the music of 1987, Prince’s “Sign O the Times” shines among the brightest. It’s slightly delayed, knocking rhythm groove, and bluesy synthesizer bass, slurred like the speech of old men drinking cheap liquor, was the perfect seasoning for the meat of the matter, Prince’s late Reaganomics, state of the world address, sung in a plaintive falsetto very close to the moan of the old spirituals.

It’s clear that for Prince, those words were the thing, evident in the lyric video he produced for the song and the posters with the full song reprinted as if he wanted us to learn and take heed to each and every word. On this particular song he once again achieved the lyrical poignancy of his musical role models such as Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon and many others. He also succeeded in updating the blues for the age of Digital R&B and Hip Hop in much the same fashion Marvin Gaye did for the age of Funk with 1971’s “Inner City Blues.”

Prince’s singular ability to take all of the wonderful music he knew, could play and imagine, and distill it into their most vital elements, is essential to the musical success of this piece, which caught my ear coming from my Dad’s stereo system. It starts off with four kick beats from the drum machine, answered by a delayed percussion sound, in a digital African call and response pattern. No snare drum, no vocals, no bass line, until Prince lets out a soulful “Oh Yeah”, which is the cue that brings in the reverberating snare drum and that bass.

That bass. Oh, that bass. The bass line was one of my early attractions to the song, it is a synthesized tone with a very human, vocal quality. The spareness of this arrangement is part of what makes it stand out, as other musicians and producers of the time such as Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jam and Lewis or even The Bomb Squad might have added more delicious layers to the track, Prince simply let it be so that he could bring his message across. And of course, Prince had a musical history of making the most of simplicity, as seen in previous classics such as “When Doves Cry”, and “Kiss.” This also helped him in the climate of a rising nation of Hip Hop music that focused solely on the rhythm and made him an influence on that side of music.

Part of what Prince shared with the pioneers of Hip Hop music, as well as innovators like Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and many others of his time, was no fear about making music through technological means. And “Sign O’ The Times” is a song made possible by the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an expensive sampling keyboard and computer system that only the richest of musicians could utilize in the 1980s. The synth sold for $40,000 back then and it amazed many musicians with its ability to put a whole orchestra at your fingertips, which is something modern DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation) do for a fraction of the price. But Prince pulled most of the sounds you hear on this song straight from the factory settings of the Fairlight.

“Sign O The Times” is so important to me personally because it is the very first song I can say that started me on the road to being a Prince fan. Being born in the early ’80s, I grew up with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “1999” and “Soft and Wet.” All of this was music you heard up and down the block in Oakland, California. I’m also the youngest in my family and my siblings were all teens at that time, and Prince’s music expressed what they were going through as teens and young adults. My mother and father were also fans of music, especially my father, but Prince, along with Hip Hop, is where they began to question things. Part of it was the fact they were very religious, Jehovah’s Witnesses in fact, which is ironic because Prince himself would be for the last 20 years of his life (and Larry Graham was once a member of the exact same Kingdom Hall I grew up in Oakland, California.) My mother used to say, “That boy is fine, but why does he have to be naked?. It’s funny because the outrageousness of Prince’s image and approach wasn’t itself new. In their collection they had Issac Hayes albums where Black Moses was shirtless, chained, wearing tights, they had Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” with a naked lady covered in the white stuff, numerous disco albums featuring scantily clad ladies, The Ohio Players soft porn album covers, even gender benders like Little Richard and David Bowie! And certainly…LOTS of short rock stars in HEELS (James Brown, Mick Jagger, Miles Davis etc).

Now my Dad in particular, he was rigid without being rigid. He never railed AGAINST Prince, and he tapped his toes and nodded his head to several hits over the years, maybe even picked up a 45 or two, but he mainly saw Prince as an entertaining gimmick more than a musician, and Dad’s first true love was Jazz. But “Sign O’ The Times” hit him much differently. ’87 was a big year I remember because Dad was going back to Liberia, West Africa for the first time since the 1980 coup. He was excited about getting some local mining exchanges started up that would help people in the interior of the country. Now when Dad was in Africa, he was known as one of the best people to get the new American music from, and he wasn’t about to let his reputation slip in ’87! So he taped a lot of songs off our local radio stations in the Bay Area, mainly KSOL, to take with him and play for Liberian parties.

“Sign O The Times” really caught Dad, from the plaintive vocals, the modern beat, and the comprehensive state of the world lyrics, dealing with AIDS, Natural disasters, gangs and drugs, the Space Ship Challenger and many other things. In fact, here was Prince with a record that very much supported a Biblical, “end times” view of the world like the JW’s had. Also, the deep blusey nature of the song hit Dad in a deep place, because Jazz and Blues were his roots music.

It seems in 1987 though, after two terms of Reaganomics reverse Robin Hood approach (Steal from the poor to give to the rich), many people in Black music had sentiments very close to Prince on this song. In this series, I will cover other politically themed songs from Stevie Wonder, EWF, and new (at the time) Hip Hop artists like Public Enemy and BDP. In history, 1987 would see the greatest stock market crash since the Great Depression, and the fiasco of the Iran Contra affair, which left a serious stain on the Reagen Presidency. The Inner Cities were beginning to crumble as ’87 was about the second or third year of the crack epidemic.

“Sign O’ The Times” has continued to grow in importance for me, from my elementary school years in 1987 to now. Chuck D, one of my favorite artists, once said on VH1 that he was impressed by and influenced by the lyrical power of Prince’s “Now he’s doing Horse, Its June” line from the song and how much that taught him about lyrical economy and suggestion. And it just so happened 20 years after that, when I walked into a party here in the Bay Area playing Prince music, hosted by DJ’s Dave Paul and Jeff Harris, the song that was playing when we walked in was “Sign O the Times” which me and my friends knew every word two, now picture that, 8 Black men singing “Sign O The Times” in unison! Prince took the title of this song from the journal of his 7th Day Adventist religion, and it was very fitting, not just for this masterwork of a song, but for the amazing transitional, funky, grooving, urban message-oriented music of 1987 and the late ’80s!

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Filed under A Riquespeaks Curation, Music Matters, The '87 Sound

“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 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

Music 4 the Next 1 Tribute: “I Want Your Sex Pts 1&2” by George Michael

Christmas Day 2016 marked the death of another musical legend, George Michael, just as Christmas Day 2006 took my musical hero James Brown. As an ’80s baby I grew up with George Michaels music, and his death is shocking to me because he was a month younger than my own oldest brother. What I will always appreciate in addition to Michaels huge overall pop success is the way he always incorporated Funk and R&B into his musical palette. One of the reasons I will always be thankful to British artists of the early 1980s is their constant inclusion of elements of Funk, disco, R&B, soul and other historically Black musics into their sound palette. This was in contrast to many major Rock & Roll groups of the 1980s who seemed to be scared off by the “Disco Demolition rally” and chart freeze out of the late ’70s. The British groups, being from overseas, never had a problem saying “we’ve been influenced by Black music”, whereas American acts could often pretend to be colorblind while bowing to music apartheid on MTV. This also stretched into the British groups inclusions of their own domestic Black musics, such as Lovers Rock and all the various strains of Reggae. The funky flavors were always present in Wham!’s music but they were really prominent on George Michael’s 1987 smash hit, “I want Your Sex.” I’ve written before about how the year 1987 was one of the most important musically as the general pop scene made a strong shift back towards grittier funk. “I Want Your Sex” is a jam that hit me back then in my childhood years, and the version I want to highlight today is the 2 part version, just like the Isley Brothers ’70s funk hits, which is notable for the way it proves that behind many a brittle sounding ’80s jam, lays a flowing funk bomb waiting for a change of instrumental tones and recording techniques.

The song starts off with a strong synthesizer bass note dead on the one, supported by some percussive synthesizer blips providing a counter rhythm, slowly mixing in percussion sounds, followed by a drum fill and the groove proper. The song has an insistent ostinato, repetitive simple one note bass line on the synthesizer that bubbles under the groove and creates a heavy momentum. Behind that groove the cowbell beats out steadily on all 4 beats. When George begins to sing, the bass line goes to another chord that sets off the sequence for the verse. George’s verse begins, “There’s things that you guess/there’s things that you know/there’s boys that you trust/and girls that you don’t”, which in retrospect quite frankly sound like he was dealing with his sexual identity way back then! After the verse proper, he introduces a little pre chorus refrain sung in a higher falsetto, stripped down to just a drumbeat backing the vocals. After he swears to tell no lies to his target of affection, he gets off a great line, “Don’t need no Bible/just look in my eyes”. In true soul man fashion he ends the pre chorus by laying his desires down quite flat, singing, “A mans got his patience/and here’s where mine ends!/I want your sex!” After which the musical feature of the song that stuck out the most to me in my youth is introduced, a funky gospel organ chord played on the synthesizer that lands on the upbeats, which accentuate perfectly the slow nasty funk grind of the tune.

After another verse, an instrumental bridge is introduced, consisting of a riff that moves upward, played in unison by a pan sounding synthesizer tone and the bass. It is somewhat reminiscent of the instrumental unison riffs Stevie Wonder would introduce in songs such as “Black Man”, “Master Blaster”, and “Sir Duke.” While the unison riff plays, synthesizers provide almost wah wah like riffs in the background. The riff goes upward as the arrangement moves to another refrain from Michaels. In classic post-AIDS ’80s style, Michaels ends that chorus with, “Sex is natural/sex is fun/sex is best when its/one on one”, with the “one on one” part being sung in a deeper voice. The groove oriented nature of the song is emphasized by another percussion breakdown following that section.

On the extended Part 2, after Michaels vamps on with great vocals, the song moves from its grinding ’80s naked funk groove to something different, big band, live instrument funk. It’s as if Michaels took his song back 10 years earlier to 1977, as the bass is no longer played on the synthesizer, replaced by an electric that matches the gospel organ riff rhythm for rhythm, except the organ riff itself is now played by a powerful horn section and acoustic piano, with its sharper, more percussive tone. The rest of the song vamps on through a well arranged groove structure with many highs and lows before it vamps out on a funky note.

George Michaels smash 1987 album “Faith”, was so funky, soulful, and steeped in Black music that it reached the top of the R&B charts in its day. I remember it was a topic of discussion in Jet and Ebony Magazine at the time that so many white artists were becoming big on the R&B scene and what the ramifications of that were. On George Michaels’ behalf it was pure soulful enthusiasm and skill, and he went on to prove that many times over the rest of his career in his choice of duet partners, his cover songs, and his original material. “I Want Your Sex” reached all the way up to #2 on the pop charts. It was considered very controversial in its time for its straight up declaration of lust, which of course was well situated in the Blues and Soul tradition. The sanctified gospel chording of the song and its declaration of passion sit George Michaels squarely in the sacred/profane soul man tension that provided the fuel for great male soul singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Prince. As for me personally it brings back fond memories of the days when there were certain songs you definitely were not supposed to let your parents hear you sing! And this song as well as Michaels entire catalog were part of the gifts he left us all to contemplate in his absence.

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Miss Sharon Jones

Sharon Jones passed last night, adding to the incredible litany of artists and important people we’ve lost in 2016. Miss Jones death is in its own way, is just as significant to me as those of Natalie Cole, Maurice White, and the many other incredible artists we’ve lost this past year. Along with the funky New York band, The Dap Kings, Miss Jones brought incredible down home soul and funk to the world in the early 21st Century. That is a true accomplishment in a time of such disposable sounds and music.

Sharon is an artist who had to wait many years for her big break in the music industry. She hailed from the same city as the Godfather of Soul himself, August “G.A.”. She worked regular jobs for years to have money to send back home to her family. Finally she hooked up with the Dap Kings and along with them made music that perfectly captured the classic soul sounds of the ’60s and ’70s.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have been very important to my own musical enjoyment and growth over the past ten years or so. As a musician I had the same goals that The Dap Kings did, which was to produce music with the spirit and sound of the classic funk and soul era. I also had a thing for working with older artists and vocalists, but me and my music buddies never hit on a soul vocalist as incredible as Miss Sharon Jones. Together they did something that was almost unthinkable, finding a strong audience for classic soul sounds in the present day.

I’ve mentioned Miss Jones and The Dap Kings music several times on this blog as an example of why the Internet is the home of good music today. Miss Jones music should truthfully have been a mainstay of classic soul stations and R&B stations in general. She has the type of music you could play for a soul fan that would immediately set them to trying to remember when they heard it back in the day. And I’m sure you’d have a hard time convincing them it wasn’t some old 45 they used to dance to in the living room. With Miss Jones energetic, Tina Turner/James Brown type performance style and the bands dapper, sharp suited musical precision, they were one of the premier touring bands in the world. But without the radio exposure and big hits, they mostly played either small theater type shows by themselves, or opened for bigger bands. Exposure on the Adult Contemporary formats could have given them the bigger profile that they deserved. Together they had a sound that would have been music to any Soul fan or lover of good music’s ears.

Yet, the musical story of Sharon and the Dap Kings is not a sad one at all. It’s also proof of what the new world of the Internet, and the old staple of a vigorous live show can do for an artist in the 21st Century. It’s almost a prototypical modern music story. Without major radio play, without the saturation of televised videos, Sharon and the Dap Kings were able to become one of the most popular live acts in the country, they were able to play television shows such as Conan, Jimmy Fallon, and Ellen. They were able to share stages with Prince. They got write ups in major magazines and newspapers. They were a highly visible “underground” music act, one who’s reputation was unimpeachable when it came to the question of musical quality. All of this came from a sure, certain musical ethic, a family style organizational structure, careful Internet marketing and the creation of brand loyalty through quality performance, and a dynamic lead singer finally getting her opportunity beyond all shallow notions in Ms. Sharon Jones. Even though their music spoke to the best of the ’60s and ’70s, their success could only truly happen today.

I’m greatly saddened by Sharon’s passing because I felt she had so much more to give. She was a relatively young proponent of classic soul and funk in a time when so much classic soul and funk has already left us. But truth be told, she gave so very much when she was here. And she left us a body of work that shows it’s still possible to dig deep into the soul to bring forth music in the digital age. Her success has been one of the best musical events of my lifetime and I hope many other talents will take her example as a call to never give up, and also to bring that old school soul in concert with the younger generations!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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