Tag Archives: Hip Hop

Music for The Next ONE 9-12-15: “Fear Not of Men” by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey)

The explosion in Fela Kuti’s popularity in the early ’00s, just a few years after his death from AIDs in 1997, has been for me, one of the very best musical developments of the millenium, one that both keeps funky music on people’s radar, as well as it creates a greater awareness of a richly deserving artist. I was already well familiar with Fela Kuti and his music when I first heard today’s “Music for the Next ONE” selection, “Fear Not of Man” by Yasiin Bey, then known as Mos Def, back in 1999. My family was in Africa during the 1970s, and my dad had copies of Fela Kuti & Africa 70 albums like “Shakara.” Around 1989 or so I remember my brother in law, Joe, gifting Fela’s then current album, “Beasts of No Nation”, to my father on CD, and pops playing it over and over and over again, with that album serving as my contemporary introduction to Fela. I rememeber when Fela passed in ’97, being hurt by it and contemplating how much more I wanted to know about him and his music. Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” released in fall of 1999 is one of my favorite albums of all time, a diverse masterwork of Hip Hop and other black musical styles, including Funk, Soul, Jazz-Soul, Rock, and on “Fear Not of Men”, Afro Beat. Mos Def here does a masterful interpolation, or cover version of Fela’s 1977 “Fear Not for Man”, a song expressing his fearlessness in the face of the represson he was facing at home in Nigeria. Mos Def mixes some samples with live playing from himself and a musical legend, Weldon Irvine, to spin a tale of fearlessness and human resistance at the dawn of the 21st century.

The song begins with Mos whispering “Bismillahirahmanirraheim” which means “In the name of Allah, the beneficient, the merciful” which is the beginning of Muslim prayer. After which the funky Tony Allen sampled Afro Beat drum programming kicks in, a unique for us but proto Afro Beat drum part, with the snare drum delayed off beat 2 but landing dead on beat 4. Its very similar to the Afro Beat drum sample Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is based on, with the “late” snare drum playing with the listener/dancers expectations and creating a unique kind of pattern and rhytmic dip. The beat plays for a full 16 bars while Mos gives his introductions. After the drum introduces itself fully, Mos brings the “Fear Not for Man” bassline in, which he plays himself. The bassline is a very busy one, full of sixteenth notes, comprising a nine note pattern. But before it gets too Jaco, Rocco, or Larry on us, the bass repeats over and over, just a one bar pattern that seems to get energy every time it begins again. Mos also introduces percussion at this point.

Mos gave a spoken introduction to the song that spoke to me a great deal when I heard this song originally. He spoke of the coming milenium and the tension surrounding it. Then he spoke specifically of Hip Hop during that time period, and he dispensed some wisdom that has become central to my understanding of Black Music. He said that if the people who comprise Hip Hop, listeners and creators, were alright and moving in a postive direction, than the music would as well. The music was not some outside force influencing the people, it was the music of the people, and it would become more serious and level headed when the people themselves were that. That was a great comfort and a call to responsibility for me when this record dropped. As he talks, Weldon Irvine begins to play the organ riff, which is a condensed version of the rhythmic melodic riffs Fela played on the 1977 original. He then proposed self worth and value from an eternal source.

Then Mos goes on to speak to some things that are even more of a concern right now, Post 9/11 than they were when he was saying it. As Fela horn samples are incorporated into the track, he speaks of the new electronic methods of survelliance, just beginning at that time, but which would be a regular fact of life during the “War on Terror.” Mos saw this as man trying to be like God, as sampled sirens and Mos’ own human beatbox sirens play in the background. He says he’s not concerned with that because he feels there will always be limits to man’s ability to observe and control humanity. After that he delivers a rap verse, with the full beat kicking back in. He puts all his faith in God and humanity, because men, no matter how powerful they seem, “must die.” His rap verse serves more as a rap style chorus, becuase he repeats it again on the fade out of the song, which is one of Mos particular trademarks, taking rap and repeating them in the manner of songs/poems.

“Fear Not of Man” did exactly for me what Fela did in his music and what Mos hoped it would do. It encouraged me during a relatively dark time of pre milenial tension. I was concerned about the Illuminati and The “New World Order” far before it became fashionable, and educated by Hip Hop records like The Goodie Mob’s masterfully spooky “Cell Therapy.” Fela continued to make funky music that opposed one of the most repressive systems you could imagine in newly oil rich 1970s Nigeria, ruled by a succession of military dictators (“soldier go/soldier come”). Mos picked up on that courage here for a situation that potentially could mean that type of repression for the whole world. Two years after this record was released the 9/11 tragedy would happen and freedom would be exchanged for saftey in the United States. But this song and Mos entire “Black on Both Sides” album would always serve as a comfort for me, especially with Mos following the template laid down in the ’90s by The Roots, Lauryn Hill and Outkast and playing instruments himself, while handling most of the production duties on the album. It was also very special that he reached out to Weldon Irvine, who’s music has formed a foundation for much of Hip Hop, to play on this and other songs of the album. So this song then is a collboration between Fela Kuti as songwriter, with the Africa 70 and Tony Allen playing on the record through samples, the great Weldon Irvine, and the great Yasiin Bey/Mos Def as musician and M.C. Who can be afraid with that much power behind them? Not me!

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Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me”, a Riquepeaks Review.

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W.E.B DuBois century defining statement that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” was explored and fleshed out in many of that times most compelling books, such as “Beloved”, “Soul on Ice”, “Black Boy”, “The Invisible Man”, “Blues People”, “Die, Nigger, Die”, “The Fire Next Time”, “The Color Purple”, “Roots”, “To Be Young Gifted and black”, and many more. The Atlantic Magazine editor Ta-Nehisi Coates summertime book, “Between the World and Me”, is one of the best such books to appear in a long time, and it’s appearance is a timely one, occurring during a time of consistently documented police killings, a real erosion of black wealth, and The United States first Black President. Coates tone is one of fear and often hopelessness, as he talks to what is every parent’s and ultimately humanity’s hope for the future, his child. He borrows the structure from a chapter in James Baldwin’s book of essays, “The Fire Next Time, entitled “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” a letter to his nephew. Coates book has already inflamed Boomer activists such as Dr. Cornel West with its lack of rousing rhetoric, prophetic fire or spiritual hope. Coates makes it clear he was raised by an ex-Black Panther, in a household totally absent of religious faith, so when the firehoses, batons and attack dogs of white supremacy hit, he has no God to call on. All he has is fear over the destruction of his physical body, his one and only life. The Nation of Islam is a precursor to this type of thinking in the Black community, preaching, “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.”

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But Coates refuses to trade Christian religious faith in the afterlife for a supposed Muslim belief in righteous justice, or any other strategy yet employed Black people to grasp at the ever elusive freedom of self determination. While the book recounts the great joy he found in the diversity and protection he found on the campus of Howard University, and he locates glimpses of Black culture and power in music, and exchanges as subtle yet seemingly mundane as a brief conversation between himself and a Black man working at the airport, he does not provide us with a larger strategy of liberation. Part of this is because his analysis of history both national and personal leads him to tell his son Samori, “I do not believe that we can stop them because ultimately they must stop themselves.”

What he definitely does not do, is ask for any higher struggle or righteousness from his son, other than to continue his own growth and development as an intelligent, bright, diverse human being, telling his son, “You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”

This affirming of black essence and rejection of respectability politics which underscores Coates stark, cold and often scary racial bottom line, along with his lack of faith in mass movements, are very familiar to me because they’re the attitude of my generation. Coates is a member of Generation X, born in the ’70s, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. William Strauss’s book “Generations: A History of America’s Future”, characterized Generation X as being reared in a tumultuous time, the ’60s and ’70s, a time of a weakening America and a rising Third World, raised by parents intimately involved in the social and political revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, kids raised in a time of rising divorce, a more explicit media culture, and uncertainty about societal roles.

For Coates, like Tupac and Kanye West, this meant having a Black Panther parent, and his father had gone on to being a publisher of Black books. Black Gen X in inner cities like Coates native Baltimore, grew up during a time of white flight, busing to white school districts, “benign neglect”, the crack epidemic, redlining, and Reagenomics. It was also the time period of hip hop, which reveled in blackness, but who’s circumstances at the time of its creation promoted Blacks self determination, or at it’s most chaotic end, individualism, materialism, and personal survival, in a nation that, after Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, was way beyond moral pretensions, with people engaging in a mad dash to “get theirs.” Hip Hop could quote Christianity but it was largely post Christian, applying it’s same sampling Post Modernist verve to investigations of belief, faith and knowledge systems. Coates reflects then, Tupac, Nas, Jay Z, Biggie, Scarface, Ice T, NWA, Ice Cube, The Wu Tang Clan, and many others in his ultra realistic, Black and proud, yet religiously pragmatic world view. Because of it’s skepticism in human nature both Black and White, and it’s realistic appraisal of the entrenchment of white superiority, Black elders such as Cornel West, Calvin Butts and C. Delores Tucker have seen the music and views, the attitudes of this generation as apathetic, avaricious, anarchic, hopeless, self defeating, counter revolutionary, and nihilistic. To which mid-90s rappers replied, they were simply “Keepin It Real”, their time period did not afford them the same strategies of liberation or American faith their predecessors had employed.

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In this time, when Coates grew up In a decaying Baltimore, surrounded by what he’d term, “black bodies”, the actual threat of white people is a far away, systemic one. In a hard scrabble situation where about his peers were predominantly Black, We find Coates a shy bookish kid, forced to learn the attitudes, stances and mores that would keep his body, his black ass, alive. And it’s Coates constant reference to “Black bodies”, borrowed from Black Feminism, that makes me to understand black folks constant use, often in vehement tones of warning, about yours, mine, or their own “black ass”, sometimes said with the slave drivers anger, other times with revulsion, at other times with pity, desire, and pride. It all comes down to the body, and the survivability and viability of it. Coates didn’t deal as much (at least in this version of his story) with the direct conflict with white kids we might read in older black books because by the ’80s most of the white people had left the city for the burbs.

Coates depicts this suburban life as “The Dream”, which equals out to white kids enjoying the innocent teenage life depicted in ’80s John Hughes films without fearing for their lives by doing something as innocuous as walking and wearing a hoodie while carry Skittles. Of course white kids still had to deal with personal problems of abuse, divorce, bad parenting, bullying, and etc faced through all kids throughout time, but not the specific problems created by American racism on top of those. Coates is in the hood meanwhile, terrorized by other Black kids who are victimized by the same system, fighting to prove their own bodies will not be destroyed.

Coats breaks all the terror in Black history down to a destruction of the black body, and all the survival strategies of Blacks as attempts to protect those bodies. For in America, “it is traditional to destroy the black body, it is heritage.” Which seems like the perfect rejoinder to those who insist the Confederate Flag is heritage, which it is, but one built on pillage and plunder.

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In this focus on the body he illuminates some of the basic thinking behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a basic questioning of the perceived value of black life in country and a hemisphere in which, “Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a resource of incomparable value.” In Coates reading the pillage of black bodies is what makes the A,Erica. dream itself possible.

Coates world is as grim as that of Scarface, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, or Tupac’s. He finds glimpses of the power of Black culture at Howard University, which he calls “The Mecca”, because it draws Blakcs from all over the country and the world, of every style, orientation, gift and sensibility. A small glimpse of what a thriving, functioning Black world would look like. He talks about Paris, France, and how it represents for him something similar as it did for James Baldwin, an escape from the American racial dynamic,although it has it’s own troubling racial history. All this is offered to his son as he hopes his son can maintain his more open spirit, free of the ghetto from which Coates had to unlearn so many self defense mechanisms.

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Ultimately, escaping the ghetto and living closer to “The Dream” instills the fear in Coates that his son’s body will be sacrificed, as was Trayvon Martin’s, in order to preserve and protect somebody else’s Dream. Coates son no longer has to worry about Tyrone and Ray Ray, but his father is afraid he will have his progressive lifestyle and mindset taken away from him, like his handsome, charismatic friend Prince Jones, murdered by the police. He visits Prince’s mother, Dr. Jones, seemingly both to pay his respects and learn something as a parent. He finds in Dr. Jones honesty about the racial situation, and a comparison of the situation they face to Solomon Northrop’s “12 Years a Slave”, recently made into a successful picture. That no matter how far a Black person escapes economic indignity they can never be far away from the possible race related loss of their body. But he also finds in her the impassive, righteous strength of the Civil Rights generation, a strength he finds curious and attempts to understand. At the end he’s looking at the ghetto out of the window and once again feeling fearful.

Coates book is easily one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time, and valuable for me because it captures a specific racial attitude of Some black people who have grown up after the gains of the Civil Rights movement and the aggressiveness of Black Power had started to recede Into history. Although my own view is not as hopeless as his, I do believe a book like this is both along hard look into the mirror and a long unsentimental look at the terrain that is needed before the dynamics of action can be properly formulated. Coates didn’t set out to save souls but to save lives or at least help us understand why they are lost, mourn them when they are lost, and make sense of how their loss enables someone else to live.

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Filed under Black Issues, Book Recommendations, Social Timing

Music for the Next ONE 7/18/15 : “i” by Kendrick Lamar

As Hip Hop moved away from what some call “The Sampledelic Age”, when producers like The Bomb Squad, Prince Paul, Marley Marl and Dr. Dre would layer songs with a drumbeat from here, bass from there, guitar and keyboard hooks from this record, vocals from that record, songs from the legendary group The Isley Brothers began to yield some of the biggest results for beat samples and song remakes. This includes records such as “Today Was A Good day” by Ice Cube, “Big Poppa” by The Notorious B.I.G, “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs N Harmony, and “At Your Best You Are Love” by Aaliyah. The past 15 years in Hip Hop have seen a moving away from samples, as well as a moving away from soul, funk, and traditional forms of Black Music. Something else the music and culture has lacked is artists to pick up the crown worn in the past, the crown of encouragement, motivation and cultural value through music. With today’s weekend funk feature, “i”, Kendrick Lamar accomplished both the reinvigoration of a classic funk/soul sound through hip hop, as well as delivering the type of universal message music the people need.

“i”, produced by L.A producer Rahki and featuring Butcher Brown guitarist Keith Askey, dispenses with samples all together to recreate The Isley’s classic, “That Lady.” Interpolations, or re created cover versions, were a staple of early hip hop, providing the basis for early classics such as “Rappers Delight” and “Beat Bop.” Lamar made the wise creative choice to interpolate rather than sample “That Lady.” The music to the Isley’s classic song sounds reinvigorated as a result, and Rahki uses skillful hip hop oriented production techniques to highlight basslines, guitar parts, and percussion, revealing the intricacy of the original composition as well as the recording musicians performances.

The song begins with the classic “That Lady” intro, a guitar strumming groove over three straight eight note kick drums that sound like heartbeats. Lamar begins in a very heartfelt matter, “I done been through a whole lot/trial, tribulation, but I know God.” As Lamar goes through his verse, rapped in his trademark technique of alternating vocal tones, Askey fires up the lead guitar, exactly as Ernie Isley did. The verse is timed so that as soon as Lamar ends his verse, the hook begins, which also brings in the classic busy funk/calypso bass line, eighth note rock/funk drumming, and classic overdriven lead guitar. It’s to great musical effect that the super powerful chorus “I love myself” is tied to the explosive rhythm arrangement of “That Lady.” Lamar and Rahki solve the challenge of fitting rap lyrics into a busy funk arrangement, setting Kendrick’s raps over a relatively subdued section of the music and the inspirational chorus over Askey’s interpretation of Isley’s soaring guitar. In particular I like the musical section arranged for the last verse, with the bass improvising a busy sixteenth note line, and a drum machine being utilized with sharp horn stabs. The song flows out with busy military style drumming and a fine sixteenth note oriented bass guitar solo.

The throne of relevancy in black music has sat vacant for a very long time. The throne once sat artists such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Earth, Wind & Fire, and P-Funk. Not to mention hip hop entities such as Public Enemy, BDP, Nas, Tupac, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Lauryn Hill. The throne and crown that goes with it of an artist making music that is both funky and musically appealing, while also relevant in its spirituality, humanism, and value for human living. Kendrick acknowledges those links by including funk icons George Clinton and Ron Isley in the video for “I”, as well as asking Isley’s permission in person to use the song before he recorded it. Nelson George wrote once that Hip Hop starts with the word “I”, positioning Hip Hop music as a Muhammed Ali influenced exercise in black self esteem, pride and redemption. Even when the message isn’t there, Hip Hop always has that value by nature. Kendrick Lamar writes his “i” in lower case letters, just as bell hooks writes her name, to emphasize the individual’s connection to other individuals. And that self love should translate into love for ones neighbors, community, nation and world. He goes back to the rousing spirit, Afro-Latin dance funk of “That Lady” because in the black community that ’70s funk, long before there was a thing such as crack cocaine, represents hope, optimism, peace, love, and having fun, as James Brown and Afrika Baambaata put it. Looking at YouTube comments, some youngsters didn’t get it, mainly because they’ve been raised on a steady diet of Playstation music. But there were many things I didn’t get when I was younger either. In the end, I still vote for “i” as the new Millennium Hip Hop version of “The Greatest Love of All”, “Wake Up Everybody” and “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now.” The new link in a long chain of hope, resilience, and freedom. All Hail King Kendrick!

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

#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")

Quick Thoughts on Nile Rodgers UnSung

Nile Rodgers episode of UnSung, much like the Gil Scott Heron episode that aired the week before it, was one of the special ones for me personally. Rodgers music has always been so important to hip hop and pop. from the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” to the bling era of Diddy & B.I.G talking about “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” There is something about Rodgers and his partner, the great bassist Bernard Edwards jazzy chords, deep tight bass, unison singing, pretty female vocalists and sharp, conservatively fashionable attire that seem to capture a part of the aesthetic of post-Soul Black America. Of course, this has translated itself to major pop success as well, as Rodgers productions for Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Debbie Harry and his recent fortuituous collabo with Daft Punk attest to. The sheer star power and history making nature of Rodgers life’s work make for one of the biggest episodes of UnSung to date, right next to those of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Issac Hayes, Bobby Womacks, and Billie Preston.

Rodgers stellar autiobiography, “Le Freak” already served to familiarize me with many of the details of his life, and it is an excellent read. What I appreciate so much about the UnSung program is that like always, it provided visuals of a life story I was aware of bits and pieces of, which gave me a much fuller picture. It was dope in particular to see his mother, Bev. One of the most interesting features of his life were his childhood years and the way he was raised. Rodgers mother was married to a white bohemian jazz fan, and his mother and step dad were heroin addicts. Rodgers mentions his parents were beautiful people, but as addicts they were also unable to function as disciplinary figures. This gave Rodgers a unique perspective that probably contributed to his unique musical outlook. Rodgers upbringing included hustlers, artists, revolutionaries, and took place in NYC and L.A. In many ways, this type of upbringing was ahead of its time, featuring lax parental control, multiculturalism and an openness to ideas that would typify the years ahead, which seemed to serve Rodgers well in creating his tight, hip, fashionably subversive music and world view.

The film also gets into the great Bernard Edwards, interviewing his son, Bernard Edwards Jr, who illustrates briefly his fathers “chugging” bass guitar style. It goes from Rogers and Edwards beginnings in NYC playing rock to their huge success and the disco fallout. One aspect I also appreciated was the interviews with Norma Jean and Alfa Anderson, two of the female singers during Chic’s glory years. Norma Jean sang on the first singles with Anderson being more prominent in the overall catalog of the group.

The drug struggles of Rodgers, Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson are all covered as well. But one of the most unique facets of the UnSung episode is, while most episodes show artists still working on new music and vowing to continue playing as long as they are around, Rodgers episode ends with the triumph of winning the Grammy Award. Rodgers victory with Daft Punk for “Get Lucky” and his contributions to their “Random Access Memories” album, give him a measure of recognition and respect that escaped him for the majority of his years in the record industry. Chic went throuh an incredible time period in the 1980s in which nobody would pay their records any mind what so ever beccause it was saddled with the “disco” label. At the same time, they were writing and producing some of the defining records of the 1980s, from “Upside Down”, to “Lets Dance”, from “Like a Virgin” to “Notorious”, and from “Addicted to Love” to “I’m Coming Out”, the Chic Organization’s aesthetic became even more pervasive in the 1980s but for the most part, Nile and Bernard stood in the shadwows. In a certain respect, this was as it should have been. They always attempted to cultivate a certain kind of hip anonymity, with their suits serving as armour akin to Kiss’s face paint. But this backfired to a degree when recognition was what they needed to feel some sense of appreciation for their contributions.

The Rodgers episode of UnSung ended in an unusual way for the program. There was a post credit postscript featuring Rogers playing the guitar and talking about how important music is in his life. In many ways, the Rodgers and Chic story is a bittersweet one, with Edwards and Thompson both prematurely dead, and the lack of recognition and critical respect the group has suffered from at various times. But Rodgers recent defeat of Cancer, his work with Daft Punk and Pharrell, and the inner peace he’s seemed to attain all speak to an artist who is ready to step into a valued and exaulted place as a musical elder, and the world will be much more chic for it.

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Quick Thoughts on Nelson George’s “Finding the Funk”

In the mid 1990s there was a documentary program I viewed on PBS entitled “The History of Rock & Roll.” One of the later episodes of this program was entitled “Make it Funky.” This episode was a comprehensive examination of funk music through the James Brown roots, and covered the major proponents of the genre, from James Brown, to Sly Stone and P Funk, interviewing musicians such as Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, and featuring commentators such as James Brown and Prince road manager Alan Leeds, and author Nelson George. I taped that documentary on VHS and would study it over and over again, marveling at the outfits, the musical clips, and the idea that there was a black dance based music called funk that ruled black dance music and stage presentation from roughly 1965 to 1982. The interesting thing is, I knew all the artists the show talked about. I also knew the songs, from “Cold Sweat” to “Superfreak”, and I knew words such as “funky”, “Groove”, “Thumping”, and other words synonymous with the genre. I also knew the Hip Hop I loved was drawing from that time period. Many of those records were also present in my home. But in some form or fashion, I didn’t know that Funk was it’s own music, seperate and distinct from soul and hip hop both. I didn’t know that Funk represented such a revolution in outfits, playing styles, subject matter and aspirations. That documentary and Rickey Vincents opus, “Funk: The Music, People, and History of the One”, helped solidify in my mind what had already been my favorite music all of my life, from James Brown, to the Commodores, to Ramsey Lewis, to Herbie Hancock, M.C Hammer and Public Enemy. One of my favorite writers, Nelson George, who was also very prominent on that earlier documentary, has a new one, entitled “Finding the Funk”, that stands out by taking the basic story of funk which has already been sketched , and coloring and texturing that story, with another 20 or so years of perspective and grooves laid on top of the documentary that came out back in the ’90s.

Nelson George has always been one of my favorite writers, due to the unique, black perspective he provides on black music. It might sound redundant, but he’s actually in a very rarified air of black writers who’ve written with consistency about the specific musical tastes of the black community. He actually wrote and covered funk during it’s heyday, so it was a pleasure to see him take up this project.

“Finding the Funk” uses a modern multimedia internet age approach to telling the story of funk, with “Funk Chunks” appearing on the screen at various intervals to add information to what is being discussed or displayed on the screen. I really like the “talking heads” used, featuring musicians such as Marcus Miller, Questlove and Mike D from the Beeastie Boys. These are all musicians who were not generally old enough to be major players during the heyday of funk, but served their apprentichips in that era and have kept the flame of funk buring during their careers in the ’80s, ’90s’, and ’00s. In Millers case, he was involved in records in the late ’70s on the tail end of the funk era. The Beastie Boys also had a funk and punk cover band in the early ’80s, and Questlove was learning to play those records and in some cases playing them as a little kid in his fathers band. These commentators all speak of funk from the perspectives of fans, but also musicians serving their apprentischips and learning, as when Miller demonstrates Larry Grahams “Hair” or “Skin Tight”, Questlove the Honey Drippers “Impeach the President”, D’Angelo doing Parliaments “Do That Stuff”, or Mike D Funkadelics “Good Ole Funky Music.” These performance features are some of my favorite momments of the doc.

“Funk” goes farther than the documentary I saw back in the ’90s in tracing the musics history, reminding me more of the deep roots Rickey Vincent uncovered for the music in his book, the roots musicians have always given for the music. It traces the Funk back to New Orleans, which is so crucial in black music as the area that kept the drums of African music alive in America. He talks to New Orleans brass bands that play funk to this day, in the age of hip hop and electronic music. The roots of the music are traced from there to the Hard Bop jazz movement of the 1950s, where artists such as Jimmy Smith, the Jazz Crusaders, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Ray Charles embraced modal jazz, the blues scale, the 12 bar blues, African percussion (and often African and muslim names), gospel music, honking horns, and other down home musical elements they described as “funky.” These elements were a “blackenizing” of the music in reaction to the extremely popular West Coast Cool school, as well as a reaction to the often undanceable abstractions of be bop. This movement towards funkiness in jazz was what inspired the sound James Brown was going to the most, as Brown always mentioned early rock & Roll pioneer Louis Jordan as his biggest influence, and Jordan was a musician who came from Swing Jazz.

The doc goes on to focus on the Kings of Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton, but it adds space that other funk docs havent, for Earth, Wind & Fire, and Prince in the ’80s. It also deals with hip hop as the direct desendant of funk, and deals with the new funk frontier, also featuring D’Angelo and Dam Funk. This was a modern approach I was particularly pleased with. The earlier “History of Funk” I saw back in the ’90s made a clear narrative choice to treat funk as the creative black music of the ’70s, that was overtaken by hip hop in the ’80s. While that is true to some extent in historical terms, its only a small part of the story in real terms. George alters this perception by covering funk bands that were cracking in the late ’70s and early ’80s like Slave, and highlighting how Prince was a musician well versed in funk, as was Michael Jackson. He also emphasizes the importance of funk to hip hop. All of this is a vital contribution to how we think about funk.

The regional nature of the funk is another thing George took care to stress in his doc. The film uses map graphics to represent the regional spread of the one, from Brass Construction and Crown Heights Affair (who I was glad to see mentioned) in New York City, to War and The Brothers Johnson in LA, to Sly Stone in the Bay Area, and a whole mess of groups in Dayton, Ohio. He also highlights how groups like Cameo and EWF moved around to find the spot that would suit their grooves the best. The story of Dayton Funk in particular is a valuable contribution to funk on the screen. The economics of the matter were discussed, as Scott Brown mentioned parents in Dayton had the disposable income to purchase instruments to keep their children out of trouble.

The economics of funk were mentioned several times in the doc. Stuart Matheson of Sade mentioned you get funk by getting people in a room together and jamming, which is really expensive these days. Nile Rogers made the point that whenever he got together with hip hoppers, they were always amazed at his chops and he always took sampling to say, “I wish I could do that.” The film definitely brought out the long held belief that Reagenomics and the decline of the cities helped kill the black band movement and make the spare technology of hip hop a more affordable artistic direction.

Otherwise, there are plenty of other gems to be found here. Prince finally gets his due from a FUNK standpoint, with it being mentioned that Prince’s adoption of “white” rock is really not unusual in a funk context, when artists like Sly Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, and even Issac Hayes, the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield did the same with the psychedelic rock techniques of their day that were heavily blues based. The doc also sheds some light on the battle for funk dominance between Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire,captured for the first time on film. D’Angelo made a comparison I’d heard Gary Shider of P Funk himself make, that EWF represented the “good guy” facet of Funk a la The Beatles, and P-Funk the black hatted, Rolling Stones role. EWF’s elegance was mentioned, and supported with an exceptionally funky film clip of a live performance of “Shining Star.”

“Funk” also makes many other rarely made connections. Nona Hendrix and Labelle are covered, which aims to make up for the sorely under discussed female side of funk. In discussing their fabulous stage outfits, George also talked about Larry Legazi, a costume designer who masterminded many of the space funk outfits of the era.

One of the most valuable things about the documentary, is it’s compiling of anecdotes about funk. Many of these anecdotes have been revealed over the last 20 years or so, but the screen has its own unique power to bring them across. We get anecdotes from a slick suited marcel waved George Clinton about hairstyles and music, we get Bootsy Collins talking about the dynamics of “The One”, and Dawn Silva talking about how (literally) funky the room was when the MOB recorded “Knee Deep.” We are also treated to lesser known anecdotes, like Steve Arrington talking about how his singing on “Just a Touch of Love” was an accident.

Of course, everybody I talk to seems to have a long list of artists they felt were excluded. For me, there could have been more focus paid to how the big soul stars did funk, such as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Issa Hayes, Barry White, and the Isley Brothers. These artists made some of the funkiest songs ever, but their musical catalogs are so varied and their star power so great that some don’t place them within funk. But I dare people who say they don’t care much for funk to say they don’t like “Higher Ground”, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquidali (whatever) or “Live it Up” and “Fight the Power”, all of which are funk songs. I also would have liked to have seen more coverage on the Crusaders, Headhunters, Jaco Pastorius, George Duke, and artists who came at thefunk from a jazz perspective. I could also have had stylistic innovators like Ray Parker Jr. Bernard Purdie, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, and other musicians covered who were funky session musicians and made many funky records although they didn’t per se play in “funk bands.” But those musicians styles are definitely a part of what funk musicans play today. Of course, some mention of Funk’s international reach must also be made at some point, as we’re discovering more and more each year that funk was a music that deeply touched the African diaspora as well as the African continent itself, with funk being uncovered regularly from Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo and other countries.

“Finding the Funk” is an essential piece of viewing, and it would be even if it simply consisted of Sly Stone saying funk sounded like musicians who “wanted to curse”, playing. It extends the story of funk before James Brown and after P-Funk, on into the ’80s and also tips the viewers off to some of the Funk innovators of today. It’s also special that 50 years on, the major principals of funk were captured in interviews as well. All in all it’s a worthy companion to Rickey Vincents “The History of Funk”, and many Nelson George books such as “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” and “Post Soul America.” And because of George’s efforts, we have a new film in 2014 to help people visualize what we’re talking about when we talk about funk.

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Questlove’s “Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation”

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Questlove’s new book, “Soul Train, The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation” serves as both a celebration of the cultural phenomenon Don Cornelius’ landmark television show has been as well as picks up where his previous book, this summers autobiographical “Mo Meta Blues”, left off. Questo uses here an engaging form that details the history, high points, features and recurring segments, artists, fashions, and dancers of the long running music program, interwoven with his opinions of the artists place within the changes black music was undergoing at the time they made appearances on the show.

Quest personalizes his experiences with viewing Soul Train. Soul Train and Seasame Street were the only two programs his parents allowed him and his sister to watch unsupervised. Just as he does with music in his autobiography, he uses performances and moments on the show to reminisce on the impact they had on him, both as a budding musician, as well as a young man. His respect for Don Cornelius is deep, as is his belief that Soul Train was the best televised chronicle of post-Civil Rights black style, issues, and music. He organizes his book into sections on the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, the three full decades of the shows existence to this point. There is a top ten list of moments on the show that lists moments that were either musically or culturally signifigant, and it also gives profiles of the people who really made the show work, Soul Train’s fabulous dancers.

“Mo Meta Blues”, his autobiography, was notable for using a song or album to discuss every year of his life up until the time of the writing of the book. These songs, what he was listening to at any particular time, either help to trace his physical, social, emotional and musical development, or provide a soundtrack to his life. It’s an interesting literary practice that stems from the belief that music is the art form most directly related to memory. He expands on this in this book, using episodes of Soul Train either to trace artists career progressions, whether soul, funk, disco or hip hop was the happening black style of the time, or how the sets and choices of dancers reflected either an earthy, grass roots community vibe, the high class aspirations of disco, or the upwardly mobile LA vibe of the 1980s.

The book therefore serves as a users guide to the show, chronicling performances and putting them into a context of late 20th century musical progress, as well as making note of the moment in time Quest’s generations music began to be ascendant in popular taste over his parents. Therefore it’s not only a cataloguing of Quest’s tastes and opinions, but it reflects what a good deal of the Soul Train audience might have felt as well. The book is not only a great starting point to discuss the show, but a great starting point to discuss the history, music, and culture of those three decades as well, making good on the belief that Soul Train is the ultimate TV time capsule of Urban/Black culture. But you don’t have to take my word for it….get the book, and check out some Soul Train episodes on Aspire TV, as well as check out the DVD’s that have been released, and see if you don’t break out dance moves just a tad more often.

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