Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

“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

Quick Thoughts on Chuck Brown UnSung

Washington D.C Go-Go music has always fascinated me. It’s amazing to me that in the 1980s, while New York D.Js and producers were making records off records, Miami, L.A and Detroit musicians were making music with drum machines and synths, and Prince and his comrades in Minneapolis were paring their funk down to the essentials, there was a full live band funk sound flourishing in Washington D.C. This sound was also probably one of the most Afrocentric musical offshoots that ever existed in the northern hemisphere as well, featuring long extended dance jams, with percolating percussion and soulful party chants on top. And to top it off, the DMV area seemed strong enough for these live bands to make a living and sustain themselves with recording and live shows without really making too much noise in the rest of the country. That said something to me about the strength of the black community in D.C, Maryland and Virginia. The late Chuck Brown was the undisputed father of Go-Go music and the UnSung episode based on his life was a good introduction to his work. What took the episode a little bit further was it also attempted to provide an introduction to the whole D.C Go-Go scene as well.

One moment that was captured on camera that was important for musicologist purposes was to have Chuck Brown tell the story of how the Grover Washington Jr classic “Mr. Magic”, with a drum beat played by legendary studio drummer Harvey Mason, provided the original inspiration for the Go-Go beat. The episode had various D.C community and political figures such as Mayor Marion Berry talking about the social forces in Washington D.C that helped create the spawning ground for Go-Go music. The negative side of those conditions predominated on the Island Records film that was intended to take the music national. That film ended up being one that focused on crime more than the music, which made it hard for the music to thrive.

Spike Lee comes off good here as the loving chronicler of Black American culture that he has been through his career. The music and scene were shown in a negative light in the “Good to Go” film, but got some of it’s highest and most positive exposure ever came from the “Pajama Jam” scene in Lee’s “School Daze.” D.C band E.U collaborated with Spike on the title and dance, and super bassist and producer Marcus Miller for the classic, “Da Butt”, one of the biggest Hits in the music’s history, right alongside Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose.”

The episode ends with scenes from the current bands keeping Go-Go music alive today. One thing people forget, when they view Go-Go music as an isolated anomaly belonging solely in the DMV, is how vital it has been to the rest of Black music. Go-Go music was a live funk band sound thriving in the 1980s era of sampling and Hip Hop. From the beginning, it was a fresh, contemporary source of sounds for Hip Hop, with Trouble Funk’s classic record, “Drop the Bomb” being one of the most heavily sampled records of its day. There was something about the slow, percussion heavy Go-Go beats that were as ideal for rapping over as any music that’s ever been created. The list of Hip Hop songs made with Go-Go in mind goes on and on, from Big Daddy Kane’s “I get the Job Done”, to Kid N Play’s “Rollin with Kid n Play”, from Public Enemy’s “Rightstarter”, to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to a bonafide Hip Hop classic like Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show.” “The Show” of course had musical contributions from Teddy Riley, who had that unique DMV flavor in his music from the beginning. Of course, New Jack Swing basically gets it’s rhythmic juice from Go-Go’s funky, shuffling, jazzy slow funk feel. That feel was taken by Riley to records as big as Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” The episode also touched on what Jill Scott did for the music when she recorded “It’s Love” with D.C Go-Go figures. I could go on and on but I’m really happy the music got some shine here because it’s really been one of the best things going for a long time. When Chuck Brown gets to chanting and rapping over a 15 minute groove he reaches a deep African place like Fela Kuti on his extended Afro beat suites. James Brown occasionally touched that on records like “Doin it to Death” and “Time is Running out Fast”, and George Clinton definitely used to reach it on stage, but that was Chuck Brown’s basic mode of musical expression! For bringing that level of culture and roots to a popular musical form, Chuck Brown and the Go-Go bands still going today are worthy of all the praise and support we can give them and then some!

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, FUNK, Music Matters

SoulSchool TV Follow Up : Charles Julian Fearing

Calvin Lincoln of SoulSchool Television had the pleasure of Interviewing several musicians in the Bay Area a few weeks ago at the Donald Byrd tribute show at Yoshi’s San Francisco, in the Filmore District. One of the most interesting was with guitar player and producer, Charles Julian Fearing. Fearing provided funky guitar licks on such Blackbyrd’s classics as “Rock Creek Park” on this particular night, but when we talked to him, he outlined a musical history that went much further. Fearing served his musical apprentiship under such icons of music as The Maestro Barry White, sang lead for Ray Parker Jr’s succesful “Raydio” band, and produced such legendary records as Debarge’s “All this Love.” It was a pleasure to interview Mr. Fearing and be entertained and educated by his stories and his remarkable gift for mimicry (peep out his Berry Gordy and Michael Jackson impersonations.) For those of you living outside the Bay Area, I’m posting the Charles Julian Fearing interview, and look for more in the future featuring this excellent musician.

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Filed under FUNK, Music Matters, Oakland-Bay Area