Arguably the one album that everybody began to and does know The Roots for, Things Fall Apart was released 15 years ago last month. An album that was very much apart of the shifting dynamic in terms of diversity in Hip Hop in 1999, this album got Black Thought, Questlove and the gang a big time Grammy nomination, but more importantly, represented the growing diversity in Hip Hop at the start of a new millennium. It’s an album that, at the time, combined many of the different elements of black music that at the time made it so interesting and so entrancing: gritty, underground Hip Hop, “Neo Soul” instrumentation, an old school, live band feel, and just a touch of mainstream sensibilities to get it noticed by folks outside of Hip Hop circles. No other artist or group at the time could have pulled of a myriad of songs like “You Got Me”, “Double Trouble”, “Love Of My Life”, “The Next Movement” and “Without A Doubt” so effortlessly, and all on the same album. Sure, the Philly boys has already released several masterpieces by this point in their career, namely Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadeph Halflife. But Things Fall Apart was just that moment, that occurrence, that one shining light in such an amazing and diverse musical career that just about all of us can point to and say, “Yup, that’s where they really hit their stride.” Between Mos Def imitating the scat-like improvisations of “Planet Rock” on “Double Trouble” to the incomparable Ursala Rucker with her dark and haunting poetry on “The Return To Innocence Lost” to three of the most amazing women in Hip Hop and R&B (read: Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Eve) contributing to the lead single “You Got Me”, Things Fall Apart made everything come together for The Roots.
2014 is filled with a ton of big time music anniversaries, especially for Hip Hop. For many of us that came up as pre-teens and teens in the 1990s, it was a transformative decade for Hip Hop, and 1999 was an even more transformative year for the genre. That said, it’s officially been 15 years since Marshall Mathers released his debut album, The Slim Shady LP. What do you even say about this joint? Truthfully, there’s so much to BE said, because a young and broke Eminem would soon have the attention of the entire world with his debut. It was everything that Hip Hop is, isn’t and is supposed to be: alternative, clever, violent, sarcastic, strange, humorous, offensive, grating, maddening and genius. Aided by the long-established brilliance of Dr. Dre, Eminem was able to do what many other emcees could not on songs like “Just Don’t Give A F**k”, “Rock Bottom”, “Bad Meets Evil”, “My Name Is”, “Brain Damage”, “Guilty Conscience” and “My Fault”: create songs that bridged a gap between working class sentiments and mentalities and amazingly dark yet powerful lyrics on everything from his childhood to the struggles of a young, poor father to any twisted, demented idea that came to his mind. And we gobbled it up. I won’t go into too much detail, because those who know remember it very well. Just in case you’re unfamiliar, take a listen to one of the standout tracks from The Slim Shady LP, “Brain Damage”.
I’m an 80s baby, through and through. Born in the era of Reganomics, the explosion of hip hop, house and techno, and the first ever reported cases of HIV and AIDS (I came to be about 1 year after they were announced in 1981). But I’ve always felt a connection to earlier eras and periods when it came to music. Sure, I was raised in the 90s, and I can definitely get with some current stuff (really feelin’ J. Cole, Mac Miller and Kendrick Lamar these days!). But I think because my parents were such big music heads in their own right during the 1960s and 70s, that had a major impact on my tastes.
Earlier this year, I did a post on what is (or at least what will be) the 40th Anniversary of the Wattstax Music Festival in 1972. Well, I’ve decided to take it a step further. I noticed earlier this year that 2011 marks the 40th Anniversary of three landmark albums in all of black music, each of the released in 1971: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly and the Family Stones There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. Each body of work had their respective following, and each also was borne out of a sense of desperation and disillusionment, as one era died and another began. Ever heard any of the stories behind these timeless pieces of art? No? Well, then how about a few short history lessons…
By the time the 1970s began, Marvin Gaye was not in a very good place. He’d already had several hits with the Motown label throughout much of the 60s, but the death of his singing partner and close friend Tammi Terrell, as well as his disillusionment with the material he was receiving from Motown to record, was more than he could bear. Soon, he would sink into a deep depression and refused to record or perform. But Gaye would soon begin to re-evaluate the direction that his music would take and recorded the songs “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love” in June of 1970. He was also inspired by letters his brother sent him while stationed in Vietnam. Upon hearing the entire piece of work, Berry Gordy first refused to release the album because he thought it far too political for the standard radio format, but eventually gave in when Gaye threatened never to record for Motown again. To this day, What’s Going On is hailed as a landmark moment in pop music history and was even voted as the #6 Best Album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. The songs on What’s Going On would move on to influence many artists of various genres for years to come. It was a shining moment for Marvin Gaye. But sadly, he would suffer with inner demons for years to come that would ultimately result in his shooting death at the hands of his father in 1984.
It shouldn’t be lost on the reader that Sly and the Family Stone’s dark and frightening masterpiece came out the same year, only a few months later. The original title of the album was Africa Talks To You, but legend has it that Sly and the group changed the name as a direct response to Marvin’s album, hence the name, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The 60s had been very, VERY good to Sly and the Family Stone, with their positive, upbeat fusion of rock, soul, funk and pop, which was evident in songs like “Everyday People”, “Higher”, “Sing a Simple Song” and “Stand!”, as well as albums like Dance to the Music, Life and Stand! The band got what many consider their big break at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 with what would become one of their most famous performances.
But things began to take a turn in 1970. With new-found fame came new and bigger demands and bigger problems. As the story goes, many of these demands came from many different sides: Epic Records wanted more marketable, pop-friendly songs to play on the radio and the Black Panthers wanted Sly to take a more militant stand in his music. Sly subsequently started to surround himself with unsavory characters, from his security to his management. His paranoia was fueled by his increasingly rapid drug use, and his band followed suit by experimenting in cocaine and heroin. Sly and the Family Stone were influenced by many of the events that led to the end of the positivity and togetherness of the 1960s, the death of the Civil Rights Movement, increasing police brutality and political assasinations. The result was music that the public had to wait well over a year for that was moodier, slower, more sarcastic, more dramatic and more conceptual that his previous work with There’s A Riot Goin’ On, the main draw being that Sly created many of the beats and instrumental patterns with a primitive drum machine all by his lonesome. The initial response from the public and critics was mixed, but the album has gone on to enjoy much success since its initial release and is still considered by many a true classic, especially because of the negative circumstances it was created under. It is also named by many as the album that influenced bands like the Ohio Players and Parliament/Funkadelic to create the heavier, more politically-charged funk music of the 1970s, which would go on to influence much of what we know as the foundations of hip hop.
And with that, we come to our final 40th Anniversary honoree: Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. The brain-child of George Clinton, Funkadelic was the more experimental, free-spirited and free-wheeling group to its more controlled but just as wildly-influential counterpart, Parliament. Due to some obvious influence from Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and even Frank Zappa, Clinton and his groups would go on to rule 1970s music with titles such as One Nation Under A Groove, Motor Booty Affair and Mothership Connection. But Maggot Brain, which incorporates elements of gospel, soul, funk, psychedelic rock is really where they began to hit their stride both commercially and creatively. And one of the main stories behind the epic 10-minute title track is that George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel to “play like your mama just died.” If you listen to the track in its entirety, you’d certainly believe that Hazel took these words to heart. Much of the rest of the album is filled with subliminal calls for unity and equality, the end of oppression many other refrains from the 1960s. In a sense, Maggot Brain is a beginning in a lot of different ways: for the legendary run that Parliament/Funkadelic had during the “Me” decade, for the large impact it had on experimental music AND for the effect it had on it’s direct hip hop descendants.
Again, I can’t do enough to stress the importance of knowing your history. All three of these albums stand as an imprint of their times and as institutions that have had such big influence on so many artists, groups, genres and movements that have followed. Do yourself a favor: dig into a little more research on these joints, take a listen and be inspired!
As always, thanks for following, and I’ll try to do better next time. Take care!