Tag Archives: Pop

“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 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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Filed under Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

Music for the NEXT One : Denise Matthews Memorial Weekend Special Presentation, “Milkshake” by Kelis

In the aughts the music of Prince was a clear funky influence on R&B music, when it wanted to capture a sound that was more musical, nostalgic, and yet futuristic and electronic enough to sound contemporary. The Neptunes were leaders in this trend, as Prince’s concise, simple funky grooves could fit easily into their electro Hip-Hop, rhythm centered dance productions. Chad and Pharrell had the unique ability to take funky songs and rhythms and condense them into radio ready tracks with a modern electronic, thin, futuristic sonic quality. It was almost like they gave you the 8 bit version of past funk, soul, rock, and pop classics. In Kelis, they had the perfect muse. When I first saw Kelis’ “Caught Out There” back in my senior year of High School, she immediately impressed me as the prototype of the type of woman I wanted to talk to. She had all the eclectic Afrocentric, Afro-Punk, #carefreeblackgirl, #blackgirlmagic, artsy vibes I desired, in a package very close to my own age. “Milkshake” is the closest she ever came to the world takeover I felt she deserved. The song reached #4 on the pop charts in 2003, an absolute smash. Once again, The Neptunes draw on “Nasty Girl” as the epitome of female sexual braggadocio, both in the lyrics and more obliquely, in the track as well. They show their incredible skills in interpolation, as they take the percussion heavy groove of “Nasty Girl” and drop it off in the North African desert, keeping the basic percussion feel but playing it on instruments with a more exotic tonality.

“Milkshake” begins with one bar that sounds like the groove repeating over and over, after which it goes straight into the main groove. The chorus is right on the top, a very sing songy, sassy, “My Milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/their life/is better than yours/damn right/it’s better than yours/I could teach you/but I have to charge.” Which has a very schoolyard girls taunt vibe to it in the way it was said. Kelis speaks the main chorus and sings a very taunting higher part in a higher register. The drum beat again has the stop start vibe of “Nasty Girl” but this time the sound palette shifts from the Carribean/Afro Spanish world to India, North Africa, and Middle East. Just as James Brown demanded, the “One” is very hard, being played on what sounds like a goblet drum, with a full, round, ball being shot from a cannon sound. That Darka sound hits hard on the one, only playing about twice a bar, leaving lots of space for the smaller, Indian sounding percussion. The track, just like “Nasty Girl”, is very bassy, in this instance using a deep sawtooth synthesizer sound for the bassline that is basically playing “Na-Na, Na-NA, NAA”, a school yard chant sound Kelis will sing later in the tune. There is another synth part, about an octave up, but still very low playing a three note pattern, and the classic Neptunes clavinet/guitar/harpsichord sound is also present, taking the place of a rhythm guitar, playing jittery rhythms that complement the percussion. The keyboard part plays on the up beats but also lines up with the “Na-NA, NAA’s of the bass line, to give the effect of a track that is taunting you. All of this might be irritating if the track wasn’t so bassy and rooted in the low end, with even Kelis’s singing being in a fairly low register. The song also has a bridge where the drum beat continues unabated but the bass synth progresses deeper, as Kelis voice also goes deeper until the point where she has to talk her lines.

One of the most exciting musical developments in Black music for me in the aughts was the incorporation of Middle Eastren melodies, rhythms and instruments. I remember joking with my good friend Frank about going out to get an “Arab drum machine.” The incorporation of these sounds were very powerful in a pre and post 9/11 world, and one day musicologist a and sociologists might have a great time exploring the impetus behind the fusion. Prince tapped into a similar vibe in “Nasty Girl”, giving a singer who everybody thought was a Latina, an Afro-Carribean dance track. In truth, the Afro-Latin musical vibes made Funk, Afro Beat,a nd all the modern black musics possible, connecting black American music back to the African rhythmic source. The Middle Eastren/North African side is a part of this as well, with the musical influences on Europe of the Moors, and the Melisma in black singing being related to the songs of the Muslim world. In Muslim tradition it was Bilal the Ethiopian who originated the call to Mecca. Pharrell and Chad used this vibe to find a new sound here. And it’s one of the best pop hits ever, sassy, hip, ironic, humorous, and full of female swagger. Kelis songs a song of a supremely confident woman on her best day, with her Mojo working, stopping all traffic. The Neptunes went beyond merely copying “Nasty Girl” here to something far more difficult, MAKING their own “Nasty Girl.” They did it by bringing in unique influences and a unique sound palette, and making a song full of sexual confidence, but not sex itself, highlighting the allure of a confident woman.

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Filed under Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters

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