On this second to last day of Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight an uplifting and prideful song by one of the greatest soul music artists ever who left us far too soon. Donny Hathaway, though not always as celebrated as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and many of the other big names 1970s soul music, made some amazing contributions to the genre. One of his greatest accomplishments has got to be this tune. In the same vein as Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and Wonder’s “Black Man”, “Some Day We’ll All Be Free” is a composition that’s powerful and haunting. This is mainly due to the fact that there is so much emotion and candor in Hathaway’s voice from beginning to end. But what makes it even more ironic was the singer’s own struggles with depression and self doubt that would unfortunately cut his life entirely too short. Though he’s no longer with us in the physical, he left us a bevy of classic music, this being one of his most inspired and positive statements, and one that future generations can definitely use.
Few albums have come along in the last few years that have been as major, as monumental, and crossover ready yet authentic, and as melodic as 1997′s Buena Vista Social Club. This is the album that propelled some of Cuba’s most fervently experienced music artists back into the public spotlight with the help of world music impresario Ry Cooder. The album made the rounds on popular talk shows (including Oprah) back in the late 90s and gained tons of mainstream appeal, but that’s a whole other story in and of itself. One of the most iconic tracks from the album is “El Cuarto De Tula”, a tune that’s deceptively festive and upbeat, until you really sit down and read the liner notes, or just look up the meaning of the words online. Roughly translated, the chorus reads: “At Tula’s room, the candle knocked over. She remains sleeping and never put out the candle.” So while plenty of people were probably dancing around thinking this was just another Cuban song of sexuality and freedom, it’s actually a very somber tale. But then again, as with any song, it’s all in how the listener hears it and what they take from it. The voices of the singers are twinged with a weariness and an expertise that can only come from years and years of ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. The music, again, as up tempo and amazing as it is, disguises what can be read by as real hurt and loss by some, and some tongue in cheek sexuality by others. “El Cuarto De Tula” is certainly a song that has the potential to get any party started, but also has an even greater potential to make us think about life, love, loss and community many different ways.
In 1999, Hip Hop stood on the edge of a new millennium, just the same as the rest of us: full of promise, potential, growth and uncertainty. The music had become more fragmented and sub-cultured than it had been in recent memory, with mainstream coming to the end of an amazing run in the 90s, and underground Hip Hop gaining more and more steam as we headed towards the turn of the century. One of the record labels that stood at the forefront of the underground, backpacker movement was Rawkus Records, and one of its greatest and most charismatic artists was Pharoahe Monch. And on the ultimate underground Hip Hop compilation album from 1999, Soundbombing II, Pharoahe dropped a single that to this day is truly unforgettable with “Mayor”. One thing to understand is the climate of New York city at the time. Before he gained the pristine, patriotic image of “America’s Mayor”, Rudy Guiliani was arguably one of the most hated and polarizing figures in New York politics, mainly due to policies that he passed that pretty much waged war on poor people and people of color. And Hip Hop took notice, with lines from Nas like “Guiliani is the 6-6-6…”. Pharoahe’s fictional account of a man racked with desperation and nothing to lose killing the leader of a major city may not name Guiliani specifically, but one can look closely enough at the times and decipher that the mayor was at least somewhat of an inspiration behind this tune. At only two verses, Pharoahe vividly paints a harrowing tale of a man that knows what he’s about to do will ultimately lead to his own demise, but doesn’t give a crap, as evidence by the final bar: “A dead man walking, destination: Devil’s lair/ F*** it if I’m gonna die, at least I shot the Mayor.”
It’s interesting to see that N.W.A., the Hip Hop group once deemed to offensive, macho and negative to be considered part of mainstream culture, has now been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the legendary LL Cool J. Time was, it seemed as if Hip Hop itself was being excluded from the RRHOF all together. But considering all of the musical folklore and heroism that surrounds N.W.A. these days, still one of the only acts ever to be publicly condemned by the F.B.I., it actually stands to reason. Just the same way rock icons like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, who were also at one time considered too naughty and risque for the public during their respective hey days, it’s the same for N.W.A. The rebels of the past eventually always become the iconic pioneers of the present and future. That’s just how it works in music. Anyone reading this that’s too young to remember N.W.A. or may not be familiar with them in the least, here’s a video that will get a history lesson started for you.
I must apologize to begin with…this is the first post I’ve made in a LOOOOOOOOONG time due to lots of extenuating circumstances, and for that, I am truly sorry. However, I’m picking myself back up and trying to get back on the horse once again, so to the followers of this blog: THANK YOU FOR BEING PATIENT!
Earlier this year I posted an article on the Website SoSoActive.com about the 40th Anniversary of the landmark album Catch A Fire by The Wailers (some say Bob Marley and the Wailers, but in keeping with accuracy, this of course was the name they were known by before Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston left the group for good.) Well, October marks the 40th Anniversary of the group’s classic follow-up album, Burnin’. And though Catch A Fire is steeped in glorious music nerd/Rock Doc glory with stories of how Chris Blackwell gave the Wailers’ the money to record the first album and could hear that every single penny had gone into creating a bona-fide masterpiece that stands the test of time, it was Burnin’ that helped put Bob, Peter, Bunny and the band on the road to musical super stardom, especially Bob himself.
Many of the songs found on Burnin’ are reworks of older Wailers tunes, some from their days with Lee “Scratch” Perry, including “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror”. The sound that can be found on Burnin’ follows in the direct footsteps of Catch A Fire, though in a few places, much more desperate and militant that its predecessor, especially at the very beginning of the album. Where CAF starts of with the equally smooth and rough “Concrete Jungle”, Burnin‘ intentionally begins with the more pronounced, unforgiving and uncompromising classic, “Get Up Stand Up”. The song is a classic call-to-arms to the oppressed throughout the world to fight for their very right to live, and has become arguably the most recognizable song in the Bob Marley/Wailers catalog. Comprised of funk, rhythmic and potent words of anger and an overall message of breaking the chains, both physical and figurative, “classic” doesn’t to the song justice.
One of the most curious differences between Burnin’ and Catch A Fire is that we hear the voices on lead vocals of Bob, Bunny and Peter throughout. Peter can be heard taking the lead on “One Foundation”, while Bunny’s high-pitched wail can be found on “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass It On”. Bob, of course, gets the majority of the lead vocals on the rest of the album per Chris Blackwell’s successful attempt to make him the center of the group, much to the behest of Peter and sometimes Bunny, according to legend. And of course, the album included a number of additional notable songs, including (as previously mentioned) a masterful reworking of “Small Axe”, a traditional Rastafari chant to end the album, and another song that has become synonymous with the legend of Bob Marley, “I Shot The Sheriff”.
Soon, both Peter and Bunny, frustrated with the direction of the band, would leave to pursue their own solo careers and become Reggae legends in their own right. Their backing vocals would be replaced on the next album, Natty Dread, by Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Bob’s wife Rita Marley, collectively known as the I-Threes. And though the original line up of The Wailers was no more, the focus shifted immediately to Bob, and soon his legend would be cemented. However, it would not have been possible without the timeless creation known as Burnin’.
It’s surprising to me that I haven’t done a segment on this song as of yet, seeing as it’s probably my favorite joint out of their entire catalog. Yeah, I know there are a ton of other songs by Gorillaz that I could have chosen as a fave, but something about this remix from the D-Sides double album has always spoken to me on a cerebral level. This is one of those songs where you can’t help but to dance to it, or at least nod your head, even if you’re a staunchly-rooted wallflower. One of the things that has always intrigued me about Gorillaz is that there is such a history, a story and a folklore behind the creation of possibly the most successful virtual group of all time. Don’t believe me? Just read the book “Rise of the Ogre”, which goes deep into the music and the myth that is this group. But getting back to this song, there are lots of subliminal musical influences here, from it having a dark but disco-y feel to the haunting vocals. Gorillaz and the masterminds behind them have always been masters and combining the dark and the bleak with the danceable and the poppy. Hot Chip Remix of “Kids With Guns” is proof positive of just that.
The song sampled on the 1996 Jay-Z track “Ain’t No N*gga” that helped to begin propelling Hova’s mainstream Hip Hop career. It’s a big time mixture of a few different elements, from down home dirty, fat bottom funk combined with a little bit of sheen and glitter from the disco scene. The horns definitely help to make this song a rousing dance floor worthy number, and you can just imagine crowds of people shaking, wiggling and gyrating to the hard groove of the bass line, the flute and the continuous horn loop. Also sampled on EPMD’s “It’s My Thing” back in 1988.
The way that songs are sampled in Hip Hop has always been interesting to me. And the song choices as far as sampling has always been even more interesting. Case in point: the sampling of Lou Reed by A Tribe Called Quest. It’s the converging of two generations of music, two somewhat competing genres of music, and two different ideals of what music is. On one hand you have Mr. Reed, who was a cult hero to many music fans in the 60s and 70s as part of the Velvet Underground and on his own and was also famous for making songs that dipped into what was considered at the time the more underbelly-esque side of society: transvestites, open drug use, wavering ideals on male sexuality, hanging out with Andy Warhol, you name it. On the other, there’s the Almighty Tribe, heroes of Hip hop in the early and mid 90s that went against the grain of the hyper masculinity that had come to define rap during the Golden Age, but still very much a trio of straight up Queens, NY brothas that knew how to have a good time through the music. That’s part of what is still beautiful about Hip Hop…the fact that it can find inspiration from any genre of music under the sun and subsequently use sampled pieces of it to create something almost totally different. You can clearly hear the musical similarities in the songs, and even though the messages are starkly different, without Lou Reed’s classic track, Tribe wouldn’t have been able to make one of it’s most signature songs.
Recent events being where they are have caused me to take a listen to Hip Hop songs from the past that lean more towards social commentary and consciousness. One that I’ve listened to a million times over is this one from Nas’ 2001 album Stillmatic. This song helps to wrap up a strong, stellar album from Nas at a point in his career where he was going through somewhat of a renaissance after a few misfires, as well as due to the beef that developed between he and Jay-Z. The beauty of “What Goes Around” is in Nas’ attention to detail in talking about the ugly in the world. The nature of the track as a whole seeps and drips with conspiracy theory and paranoia, and came at a time when 9/11 had basically just happened and was fresh in our hearts and minds. The lyrics are heavy with cynicism, doubt and distrust, while the spooky organ sneaks and creeps in every now and then to establish a sense of windswept bleakness. The maudlin acoustic guitar that enters at the end of the first verse adds to the sense of seeing beyond what’s shown and reading between the lines. At a moment when we seemed to be at our weakest, Nas was at his most dark, most mournful and most lyrically desolate.
Been a while since I’ve been able to post up one of my moments and for that I must sincerely apologize. But here we go again! I figured this was as good a song as any to continue on: “Sponji Reggae” by Black Uhuru. Some folks will recognize the song and it’s bouncy, feel good vibes right off the back. But I personally was first introduced to this tune, like many 80′s babies my age, by watching a classic episode of “The Cosby Show”. In truth, Bill Cosby used the platform of mainstream prime time television in the 80′s to expose more people to more music that they otherwise would not have known about, from Reggae to jazz to salsa to African music to Hip Hop. This is one of those songs that stays stuck with you for years and years, and you never know the name of it, but you always want to find out for yourself, “What artist was that???” I personally believe that Black Uhuru created one of the greatest post-Bob Marley songs in all of Reggae. I’ve also included a link to the clip from the Cosby episode below, just to give an even more substantial feel of music nerdiness to this post. I’m sure many of you will remember this one. Enjoy!