Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Something to listen to

I haven't done one of these for quite some time.

80 minutes' worth of tunes old and new (ish), mostly with a somewhat melancholy vibe, to complement the long, cold evenings as we head towards winter. Enjoy.

Ennio Morricone - Cosi' Come Sei (Postludio d'amore)
Cousteau - The Last Good Day Of The Year
Corinne Bailey Rae - Are You Here
Dungen - Vara Snabb
The Durutti Column - Madeleine
Grizzly Bear feat. Michael McDonald - While You Wait For The Others
Emmylou Harris - Till I Gain Control Again
Mark Capanni - I Believe In Miracles
Player - Baby Come Back
DJ Shadow - I've Been Trying
Jim Sullivan - Rosey
The Grateful Dead - Dark Star (7" version)
The National Gallery - Diana In The Autumn Wind
The Paradise - In Love With You
Duran Duran - The Chauffeur
The Bees - Winter Rose
The Coral - 1000 Years
The Youngbloods - Darkness, Darkness
Lee Moses - California Dreamin'

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Laissez les Bonjay rouler

Bonjay photographed by Laurie Kang

In the normal order of things, I'd avoid making wild proclamations of the Next Big Thing variety altogether, much less be making them before October is done and dusted. But on this occasion, I'm going to stick my neck out (and I don't think I'm taking a huge risk here) by declaring that Bonjay are going to be one of the acts of 2011.

The Toronto duo of vocalist Alanna Stuart and producer/programmer/beatsmith Ian Swain (a/k/a DJ Pho) first turned up on my radar about four and a half years ago, when their superb electro-dancehall refix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Maps began to get some blog love. At a time when there seemed to be an irritating trend amongst indie bands towards things like the slightly-too-pleased-with-itself ironic rap/r&b cover, Bonjay flipped it nicely and took the concept in a more original direction, but one that at the same time placed them firmly in the well-established Jamaican tradition of versioning pop, country or MOR hits - think Jimmy Cliff's Wild World, John Holt's Help Me Make It Through The Night or Ken Boothe's Everything I Own. They took it a step further a year or so later with their stunning take on TV On The Radio's Staring At The Sun; Alanna's vocal riding a speaker-punishing fidget-house riddim, punctuated by electronic whoops and growls flying all over the shop and a bottom-end that removed the option of standing still altogether. By this point, I'd begun to play games of Fantasy A&R in my mind and had already made Bonjay my first signing.

They continued to come correct with the covers, versioning Feist's Honey Honey on Emvee's UK funky bruiser Glitch Dub, and in late 2009 they dropped their first original material in the shape of the Gimmee Gimmee EP - the title track being more of their trademark mutant dancehall with Alanna channelling T-Boz, Tanya Stephens and Missy Elliott over Pho's twitching thump-and-clatter beats, while the non-EP cut Faat Gyal showcased their ability to switch effortlessly from bit-crunching intergalactic ragga to a sneaky hoist of the classic Primo beat from Paula Perry's Extra Extra. They've now gone four-for-four with the Broughtupsy EP, six original tunes that smartly distil everything they've developed over the last few years into an exhilarating blast - Alanna's assured, powerful, yet playful vocals, Pho's back-a-yard via the Mos Eisley Spaceport riddims, and a shared belief that the bottom-knocker rules all things. In a country like the UK, where the nurturing of hybrid mongrel fusions of bass music's many variants is now as natural as drawing breath, there should be a ready-made audience for an act so consistently capable of bringing something fresh with them every time they return to the table.

I have it on good authority that Pho and Alanna are to finally begin work on their debut album next year, and may even return to the UK for a few dates. I can just as easily see them going down a bomb with a festival audience next summer as turning out some dingy sweatbox in East London or wherever. Bonjay are the very definition of now, and they're only going to get better.

Download Stumble from Broughtupsy here.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Whatchoo talkin' bout? Willis.

It's been seven long years since Hayley Willis released her excellent debut album, Come Get Some, on 679, but the largely positive reviews it received weren't enough to prevent it sinking without trace. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot, and the two mesmerising live shows I saw in 2004, at the ICA and the late, lamented Spitz (both in London), had me desperately hoping she wouldn't become yet another casualty of widespread public indifference. But other than her inspired cover of Cameo's Word Up memorably featuring in an episode of CSI, and a one-shot self-released 7", Get In The Ring, about five years ago, there's been nothing since. Until now.

If you click here, you can preview her new album, Uncle Treacle, which is out later this month. It's already one of the best I've heard this year - raw-boned, spooked-out country/blues/folk, with a version of Dolly Parton's 9 To 5 that strips away all the Cosmo perkiness of the original, making it far easier for anyone actually familiar with the drudgery of working life to relate to. It's quite magnificent.

Nowadays, it's possible to throw a stone over your shoulder and hit half a dozen self-consciously "rootsy" female singer-songwriters straight from central casting. I doubt too many of them would have been as good as Willis back in 2003 and, on the evidence of this, I don't imagine much will have changed seven years on.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Remembering a true English eccentric - Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010)

A journalist acquaintance of mine has a fascinating story about Malcolm McLaren, who died yesterday aged 64, and one which sums up the spirit of the man beautifully. It took place at the offices of hotshot advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, who were responsible for the Tango ads. The agency had decided to host a series of "provocative cultural talks" by "off-beat thinkers", and Malcolm McLaren had been called upon to give the inaugural lecture. To a huge room full of ad types and journalists (of whom my acquaintance was one), he proceeded to give a very detailed and convincing argument which asserted that anyone working in the modern media industry today was using ideas, methods, images and techniques first developed by Dr. Josef Goebbels, and that they were all inheritors of the Nazi legacy. Everyone filed out in silence, and no further talks were organised

My own personal interaction with Malcolm McLaren is limited to a couple of occasions. The only time I ever met him personally was in a club just off Kensington High Street in West London during the 90s. Nobody seemed quite sure why he was there that night but, as this particular club was enjoying a brief spell as one of the place-to-be places, he was probably there just to see if there was anything noteworthy going on. I recall him being surrounded by a number of rather attractive young women, and he was wearing a well-cut, expensive-looking cream suit. Not wishing to cramp the man's style, I waited until his retinue had briefly thinned out before approaching him. I offered my hand and, in my somewhat refreshed state, thanked him for the profound and lasting effect he'd had upon my life. He looked at me disdainfully, as if to say, "Are you taking the piss?", but nonetheless shook my hand and said, "Well...thank you, I suppose". And that was that.

Several years later, our paths crossed once more. By then, I was working for a major music publisher who'd just done a deal with Malcolm to administer his catalogue. He was based in Paris, where he'd lived for some years with his partner/assistant Young Kim. At this point in what had already been a vividly colourful life, he was flitting between there and China, where he was cultivating a female Chinese punk band called the Wild Strawberries and talking up another of his discoveries, "chip music" or "8-bit punk" - low-tech DIY electro-pop built on sounds from old video games. Neither of these adventures bore much by way of fruit. But on this particular morning I'd been assigned the task of navigating the labyrinthine copyright nightmare that was Malcolm McLaren's music publishing interests, and I knew it was going to be difficult enough without the worry of whether or not I'd be able to maintain the appropriate degree of professional detachment. I called the Paris number I'd been given and, to my surprise, Malcolm himself answered. I said hello, explained who I was and why I was calling, and asked him where he thought would be the best place to begin the job of straightening everything out. "Weeeellll...", he began, "Many, many years ago, I used to run a boutique in the King's Road with a lady called Vivienne Westwood, who I was going out with at the time..." He was off. I sat there, grinning to myself and barely able to get a word in edgewise for almost half an hour, while Malcolm McLaren recounted the last thirty years of his life in very precise detail. He'd obviously grown used to dealing with people who didn't really know an awful lot about who he was or what he'd done, but I wasn't one of those people. At any point, I could have interrupted him and said, look, Malcolm, I know all this - I bought Anarchy In The UK the week it came out, I saw Bow Wow Wow in their Your Cassette Pet days, I taught myself how to mix using two copies of Buffalo Gals and, trust me, I am more than aware of your vast cultural significance as regards the development of punk and hip-hop. But we really need to talk business here...

Of course, I didn't. Fucking hell, why on Earth would I? One of the key catalysts of 20th century popular culture was talking to me, telling me his story. And Malcolm loved to tell a story, just as he loved the opportunity to place himself at the centre of it, even if the truth of the matter was often somewhat different. But I'll leave those sort of testimonies to the people best qualified to make them. When I think of Malcolm McLaren, I'll remember someone who brought ideas back to the centre of pop music, even if he'd cribbed many of those ideas from others. I'll remember an iconoclastic prankster who cut holes in the fences of art, culture, thought and politics that enabled millions of people to gain access to worlds they may otherwise never have even imagined. I'll remember the avuncular, yet charismatic raconteur with whom I was briefly on first-name terms. I'll remember the mischievous Svengali who was a landmark figure in that great and enduring tradition of provocative, manipulative, larger-than-life pop managers, alongside Larry Parnes, Andrew Loog Oldham, Simon Napier-Bell, Peter Grant, and many others. I'll remember a true English eccentric who revelled in the many things, big and small, that made (and continue to make) this country such a unique and vibrant place to live, work and create, and who never shied from offering a symbolic fuck-you to those people who still try to stifle and contain the wild, romantic, almost Pagan spirit at its heart. I'll remember someone whose work and ideas had a profound and lasting effect upon my life. And for that, Mr. McLaren, well...thank you, I suppose.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Erykah Badu puts it out there. All of it.

At 3.33am last Saturday morning, Erykah Badu premiered the video for her new single Window Seat on her official website, and her new album New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) is released in the US today. UMG has been pulling the video off a few sites, including YouTube, but the clip's viewable on Badu's website as well.

Without an enormous amount of fuss, Erykah Badu has spent much of the last decade planting her flag squarely in the centre of that piece of turf - left-of-centre, post-hip-hop, black female singer/songwriter - that previously appeared to have been Lauryn Hill's to call her own. She still gets bracketed in with that whole neo-soul, coffee shop, headwraps-and-incense clique that emerged in the mid-90s, usually by people who don't realise she's made five albums since breaking through with On And On and the subsequent Baduizm album, but she's gone in a much more interesting direction since then.

The video was shot hit-and-run style and sans permit on St. Patrick's Day in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX, the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination. One camera, one take, then run before the cops turn up (you see her feeding the meter at the start because she knew she'd have to come back for the car later). Badu has described the shoot as being simultaneously terrifying and liberating, and although the symbolism may perhaps be a little heavy-handed - if you expose yourself as an artist, you risk being shot down - it's still a pretty daring thing to do whichever way you slice it. Almost immediately, she was criticised for supposedly indulging in the kind of thing that she herself has previously criticised others for (the whole "half-naked video chick" yada-yada) whilst trying to dress it up as some kind of guerilla performance art exercise. Personally, I don't think that argument is even remotely capable of standing up, and I'm sure she's perfectly well aware that most of the talk surrounding the video will deal with the fact she gets her kit off at the end. But come on now - this isn't Lil' Kim's Crush On You. It's not even Alanis Morrisette's Thank You. Erykah is not auditioning for Girls Gone Wild here. And even though the concept of the artist being attacked for daring to express him/herself can seem a bit whiney and self-indulgent in the hands of some, Badu has been on the dirty end of such attacks often enough for her to have an issue or two with the groupthink mentality she criticises at the end of the video. There have been plenty of instances in the past where she's been vilified as a kind of hip-hop Yoko Ono/succubus figure, supposedly emasculating rappers like Common or Andre 3000 and leading them astray (whatever that means), or for dressing herself in pseudo-mystic boho/earth mother/numerology rags early on in her career. Nevertheless, she continues to push the boat out.

Not that there's any connection between the two things other than the one in my mind, compare and contrast with Lady Gaga's Telephone video. Coincidentally, here's another female artist courting controversy, who's not afraid of using the pop video format for something more than the purpose of just selling records. But entertaining as Telephone is, it's unclear what point, if any, Gaga is trying to make other than cramming together a succession of images each more bizarre and surreal than the preceding one. The most obvious conclusion to arrive at is that Telephone is just a well-executed 80s throwback, paying lavish homage to the days of high-concept mini-movies like Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad videos or Madonna's Like A Prayer. On the other hand, with Window Seat, Badu is almost literally out there on her own, and is arguably taking a far bigger risk in playing around with iconography that continues to have a lot of potency and resonance as far as the American psyche is concerned. It resonates that little bit more when you consider it (unintentionally) arrives only days after those nimrods occupying the furthest lunatic fringe of the American right began to vocalise their belief that the correct response to Barack Obama's attempt at healthcare reform was to assassinate him before they woke up to find a gulag in every town.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. Maybe it's because I've grown used to pop stars who aren't interested in giving their audiences anything to think about which doesn't relate to the mythology they create for themselves and expect us to buy into.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Alexander McQueen and the rise of Shania Twain journalism

I don't know an awful lot about fashion, but I do know that anybody who's ever pulled on a pair of jeans for anything other than the purpose of manual labour is implicitly acknowledging certain things whether they like it or not. There's some proper "no shit, Sherlock" stuff coming up next, but please bear with me. Firstly, they are acknowledging that clothes can be more than just clothes in the most basic functional sense, and the things we wear make very specific statements about us, both as individuals and as a culture. By extension therefore, the people who create or model the stuff we end up wearing can be said to have a tangible influence upon society on all manner of levels. It may not be the most important, or even positive, of influences, but it's undeniably a significant one. You can find all the proof of this you'll ever need if you hang around the Oxford Street branch of Top Shop on any given Saturday. According to a friend of mine who works in the fashion business, it was well-known that Alexander McQueen, who was found dead on Thursday, had endured a grim few years on a personal level but, specifics aside, her view (and that of many others) was that the world of fashion had lost one of its brightest and most inspirational stars. She described him as "a genius in the vein of Yves Saint-Laurent; dark and troubled, but a romantic capable of great beauty". During Massive Attack's London gig later that evening, 3D dedicated Unfinished Sympathy to McQueen, similarly praising him as "an absolute genius".

Some people seem to have bristled at the use of this word in such a context, most notably Toby Young on the Hurleygraph's blog the following day. Rather like the once-omnipresent Canadian pop-country singer mentioned in the title above, Young wasted little time in declaring that the idea of McQueen being a 'genius' certainly didn't impress him much. Disguising his observations as an insight into the shallow world of the fashionista, he proceeded to beast McQueen over the course of a few hundred words. At the point he must have actually filed this tripe - the condensed version being "I met McQueen a few times and didn't like him", coupled with "the world of fashion is superficial" - McQueen probably hadn't even been dead 24 hours.

We see a lot of this sort of thing nowadays (thanks, Internet, but really, you needn't have), and here's how it usually goes. Person of note dies, people whose lives were in some way affected by dead person's work or life express sadness and grief on one hand, mad race to be first at letting the world know how unimpressed they are on the other. "Why all the fuss? He/she was just a pop singer/actor/fashion designer, and hardly a genius". As if only an Einstein could be such a thing and that it's unthinkable someone could be, within their very specific field of endeavour, a genius. In fact, this is more or less Young's opening point - Alexander McQueen? He just made frocks. Oscar Wilde and Jimi Hendrix? Now there's genius! Whilst I wouldn't argue with the latter point, you can always find someone, especially nowadays, who'll take against a well-established consensus for shits and giggles or, in some cases, with absolute sincerity. Such as the person who once insisted to me that Hendrix was simply an over-rated hack blues player, and that the Stone Roses' John Squire was by far the better guitarist. I swear to God.

It seems contrarianism is good for business, though, and in these straitened times people will do whatever it takes to get that money. Someone recently described the practitioners of this strain of lazy, bear-baiting, 'Shania Twain journalism' as "trollumnists", which I suppose is close enough for jazz. To me, it's just further depressing evidence of the general coarsening of public debate we find ourselves faced with; "freedom of speech" or "speaking one's mind" becomes the default justification for anyone in the business of spouting poorly-informed, insensitive, boorish crap. Elsewhere, in the Stygian depths of the comments sections, there's a bloody great hole through which anachronistic concepts like "common courtesy" are slowly draining away, while the malignant, paranoid ravings of what used to be known as The Silent Majority are cheerfully validated by a procession of lionhearted souls who supposedly speak truth to power but who are actually, for the most part, idiots. So, take a bow, Rod Liddle, Jeremy Clarkson, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Kelvin Mackenzie, Richard Littlejohn, etc., etc. You've all done very well. By the way, meet Toby.

You could argue, I suppose, that Young is merely shining a light on a world overly preoccupied with the transient and the trivial and calling for a little perspective in the process. If you were being extremely polite, that is. But how polite would you want to be towards someone whose familiarity with his subject extends little further than having been rubbed up the wrong way by him and his retinue at a few photo shoots many years ago, yet remains sufficiently slighted that he'd apparently use the guy's death as an opportunity to exact some kind of revenge? Throw in a handful of cliches as applicable to the rag trade as the world of haute couture, add a few back-handed compliments about McQueen's "creative flair" (but no real talent, eh, Toby? Just "prima donna-ish...force of personality"), and hit "send". Someone on Young's Twitter feed complimented him for his "courageous and funny" piece. If we're living in a world where sticking the boot in on the freshly dead can be described as "courageous and funny", then we're fucking doomed.

Nice as it is to be paid for having an opinion, I would hope there could still be some value placed upon holding your tongue once in a while. Especially when the person on whom you're offering your "verdict" has, literally, just died. But if you really feel you must be heard, then why not ask yourself a few questions first? Y'know, questions such as, "Is this person a mass-murderer, or a despot who's brought misery and hardship to millions?". How about, "Did this person, through his or her work as a pop singer or a fashion designer, contribute in some way to the gaiety of nations?". Once you've done that, you might want to do everyone a favour and consider this perennial of maternal wisdom - if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Friday, 5 February 2010

One Time For The Rebel, or; why you need some Son Of Bazerk in your life

Every year or so, I’ll dig out Son Of Bazerk’s one and only release, Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk, and usually I’ll end up playing nothing else for about a week. It's not super-obscure or anything – after all, it came out via a major label and, although long-deleted, you can still find second-hand copies on Amazon here and in the US. Nevertheless, I do feel it’s massively under-appreciated, despite loads of people being up on it and waving the flag for how good a record it is. One of its most committed champions is Questlove of The Roots. Questo has, on several occasions, declared it to be one of his favourite albums of all time, placing it “next to Pet Sounds, Nation Of Millions, 1999, Here My Dear and the similarly neglected debut album by Son Of Bazerk’s labelmates, The Young Black Teenagers who, some of you may recall, were neither black nor teenagers (that Chuck D – what a kidder, eh?). I wish I knew what happened to my copy of that one…

Son Of Bazerk featuring No Self Control and The Band (to give them their full, unexpurgated handle) grew out of a Long Island rap crew called The Townhouse 3, who were managed by Sugar Bear of Don’t Scandalize Mine fame. One of the crew, T.A. (Tony Allen), became tight with the emcee for Spectrum City, a local soundsystem who also did a radio show on WBAU, the campus station for Adelphi College in Hempstead. Spectrum City eventually became Public Enemy, their emcee Chuck D staying in touch with Allen, and when PE founded their short-lived S.O.U.L. imprint with MCA, Allen (now christened Son Of Bazerk) was one of the first signings. Joined by The Almighty Jahwell, Sandman, Daddy Rawe and Cassandra a/k/a MC Halfpint (collectively No Self Control) and a DJ, The Band, they got stuck into their first album with The Bomb Squad producing (Incidentally, in an epic rap nerd fail, I only recently learned that the enigmatic Carl Ryder, the Bomb Squad member who never gave interviews and was never photographed, was a pseudonym for Chuck D). Anyway, as I remember it, the concept behind SOB was something akin to Public Enemy through a James Brown Live At The Apollo/old-school soul revue filter, with the emphasis on cross-genre hyperactivity rather than the black radicalism which PE had brought to the forefront of rap at the time. Not that the militancy had been toned down all that much, mind you – Allen’s lyrics are still pretty forthright, and only a little less hard-hitting and tightly-focused than those of his mentor.

Generally, though, the main reason Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk is held in such high regard by those familiar with it is because of the production. Alongside the aforementioned YBT album and Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, it’s probably the zenith of the mid-period Bomb Squad sound, still chaotic, but not quite so densely-layered as the first couple of Public Enemy albums. Yet in spite of how it crams so many styles - hip-hop, funk, metal, blues, dancehall, soul, electro, hardcore and so on - into one record, sometimes even one song, it's still probably one of the funkiest and, idiomatically speaking, blackest-sounding records the Bomb Squad ever made. Listening to it now, it also sounds like a last, glorious hurrah for the era of “fuck it, we’ll sample anything” Wild West recklessness within the realm of hip-hop production, before Grand Upright Music Ltd v. Warner Bros Records, Inc. finally brought the shutters down on the copyright free-for-all that had become a hallmark of rap’s so-called Golden Age. I’m usually lairy of the rose-tinted nostalgia through which many rap fans of my generation (more or less) attempt to make sense of the music’s past, but all the same, I do miss the days when it was all still relatively new and underground, all bets were off, notions of what hip-hop was or wasn’t hadn’t yet been set in stone, and the whole thing wasn’t being sold to you as another lifestyle option by the same people who’d have held it at arm’s length a decade earlier. Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk kind of reminds me of that time. It’s certainly not the kind of record that could be made now, and while it’s perhaps fair to say that a record like this oughtn’t to be made now, it wouldn’t do any harm for someone to try and match it for ambition.

Obviously Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk barely sold a tap when it came out, and with hindsight that probably had as much to do with the way in which hip-hop was beginning to change as it did with how awkward it might have been to market an act like Son Of Bazerk, who didn't much look or sound like whatever else was out there. In 1991 the majors hadn’t yet figured out whether or not they could make money out of gangsta rap, and were thus more likely to get behind the next NWA than the pre-existing SOB. As it turns out, there was a second Son Of Bazerk album recorded in 1994 that was never released. MC Halfpint (now a schoolteacher) has a YouTube channel under the name ‘rebelsista’, and she’s posted up a few tracks from it. It’s decent stuff, too. The production – upright bass samples and Power Of Zeus boom-bappin’ drums – leans more toward that mid-90s T-Ray/Lord Finesse/DITC sound, but there are still a few Bomb Squad-ish touches, although I’ve no idea if they were involved. The most heartening thing about it, though, is that it still sounds like Son Of Bazerk, which proves that it wasn’t all the work of The Bomb Squad. Tough as it must be to impose your personality upon career-best beats by one of the greatest production teams in hip-hop history, SOB managed it, and made a hugely enjoyable record in the process.

For those of you who like happy endings, I’ve discovered whilst writing this that SOB have reunited and are working on new material with PE’s Johnny Juice Rosado producing.

“Five, ten, fif-teen, twenny, twenny-five, thir-teeee...”

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Is the ''one rapper/one producer'' hip-hop album on its way back?

Late last year, amongst the numerous attempts to summarise the decade before it ran out of road, one piece by Simon Reynolds on the Guardian’s music blog seemed to generate quite a bit of ire, as was perhaps to be expected of something decorated with the headline “When will hip-hop hurry up and die?” Echoing an earlier article in The New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones, Reynolds snottily attempted to wave away almost the entire decade, largely on the grounds that hip-hop had, in his eyes, floundered in its duty to pursue The New as an end in itself. Why he then flagged J-Kwon’s Tipsy – a Sainsbury’s Basics hip-pop knock-off of Grindin’ by The Clipse – as one of the decade’s high-water marks is all a matter of taste, I suppose, but it’s still a funny way to try and make an argument in favour of “more surprises…in terms of sound and style”.

In a later column, Reynolds went on to suggest that the widespread critical praise for Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt II (Time magazine called it the rap album of 2009) was somehow further evidence of the backward-facing creative stasis afflicting the music. Since the slender possibility of Reynolds paying much attention to anything rap-related this year is only likely to be matched by the increasing irrelevance of his disconnected musings, I'll say no more about him. The obsession some people have with The New above all else can be a bit tiresome, rather like the insistence that music should be “challenging”, “difficult” or “confrontational”. Personally, I’m happy enough for it just to be good, and to sound as though a bit of love and consideration has gone into it. If it also happens to sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before in my life, then so much the better, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, there’s a lot to be said for making sure you’ve got the fundamentals right, and three forthcoming rap releases suggest that, in some quarters, the creative focus could be returning to those very things.

A year or so ago, writing about Jake One’s album White Van Music, I hinted that a full-length collaboration with Freeway could be in the offing. Well, it’s finally here. The Stimulus Package is released in the US by Rhymesayers Entertainment two weeks from today (in an incredibly lavish package by Brent Rollins of Ego Trip fame/notoriety) and the pair’s buckshee mixtape from late last year, The Beat Made Me Do It, is still floating around as well. The latter is a good, solid listen – proper meat-and-potatoes rhyming over a grip of sample-heavy 80s r&b-flavoured beats, not too far removed from the boogie/modern soul flavour of Jake’s excellent A-R Music mixtape from a few years back. Whether or not The Stimulus Package follows a similar direction remains to be seen, but early reports are all positive. In any event, it appears Free has managed to put all that messy Roc/State Property business behind him and has adopted a Stakhanovite work ethic that’s resulted in some great music, especially over the last year or so. However, the anticipation this time around lies in hearing one great rapper vibing off one great producer, a combo that’s become increasingly rare in hip-hop. The age of guest-list rap albums with a multitude of names behind both the board and the mic may have helped disguise the comparative absence of strong, compelling personalities in hip-hop nowadays, but it’s also resulted in artist albums sounding like mixtapes, often lacking a clear or cohesive musical direction. How much this has to do with a shift in emphasis back towards rap’s roots as a singles-driven medium is anyone’s guess, but the way I see it is this; if you’re going to make an album, then make it sound like an album – something that can be listened to from end-to-end. Amidst the perpetual debate over whether old-school musical values are something to be cherished and maintained within hip-hop, or whether it’s all about looking forward and on-to-the-next-one, it’s easy to forget that the former approach resulted in some genuine classics, and there’s no real reason to believe it couldn’t do so again.

You get the feeling David Banner would agree. His forthcoming album, Death Of A Pop Star, also adopts the “one rapper/one producer” method, although it might surprise some people to learn that the Mississippi maverick (no mug as a producer himself) has stepped back from the board and brought in 9th Wonder to take care of the beats. Needless to say, this has resulted in some outrage amongst the hair-shirted “four elements” Taliban for whom 9th is something of a hero, one commenter on Nah Right even suggesting that the collaboration “might be the worst idea in music history”. Amusing as it is to observe the reaction when it dawns on a certain strain of rap fan that their heroes don’t necessarily share the same tastes as them, collaborations between performers with seemingly little in common are still fairly unusual. That said, from Crooked Lettaz onwards, Banner’s never been afraid to make room for thoughtful lyricism and musical diversity alongside “throw dem bows” raucousness, so perhaps this isn’t as awkward a fit as some are suggesting. Death Of A Pop Star’s broader concept is somewhat vague at this point, but for anybody seeking clues, Banner can be found most days enthusiastically talking up the project on his Twitter feed. There are also a couple of teaser/trailer-type things on YouTube, one of which (see above) shows the two of them, dressed buppie-style, playing chess in the library of some country pile. It looks a bit Ron Burgundy – “I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany” – and a teeny bit pretentious, but at least they’re making an effort. Certainly, on the evidence of the freshly leaked Slow Down and last year’s Something’s Wrong, there’s a distinct whiff of “grown-ass man rap” about the proceedings, which should bring a bit of much-needed balance to the hip-hop landscape. 9th’s beats are typically chocka with reconfigured soul samples, while Banner delivers the “I don’t know what this world is coming to” subject matter in characteristically declamatory fashion. Not sure quite when it’s out - there was talk of the pair making it available for free, but Banner has since poured water on this. However, he's offering fans and bedroom producers the chances to remix tracks from the album, the best of which will feature on a freebie remix album later in the year. All in all, this is looking like one to catch.

If these two albums do indeed represent a trend of sorts, then by rights Just Blaze and Saigon ought to have been at least 18 months ahead of it. When Just signed Saigon to his Fort Knocks imprint in 2005, it was on the back of probably the most impressive street buzz for a New York rapper since 50 Cent. Coming from more or less the same part of Jamaica, Queens as Fiddy, Saigon had also spent more than a little time on the corner and in the nick, but rather than choose the self-mythologising route favoured by Fiddy, Sai saw an opportunity to position himself as a somewhat more conscious, but no less uncompromising Yin to Fiddy’s Yang. A few enthusiastically received mixtapes (the high-points from which were later compiled on the Warning Shots album) and a short stint playing a West Coast version of himself in Season 2 of HBO’s Entourage saw both the momentum and the profile building nicely. Fort Knocks had signed a label deal with Atlantic, and Sai’s first single - the rowdy, J. Geils-sampling Come On Baby - came out in the spring of 2007. Jay-Z’s guest verse on the remix was seen in some quarters almost as an endorsement of an emcee many saw as being capable of putting New York City back at the centre of the rap universe, and Sai’s Just Blaze-produced debut album, The Greatest Story Never Told, was scheduled for release later that year. Only it never happened. What happened instead was a salutary lesson in Industry Rule #4080 – postponement followed postponement, Sai began to use his MySpace blog to rail against the record biz politics that had stalled his career (he even announced, then quickly withdrew, plans to quit music altogether at one point), and sundry internet wiseacres began to snarkily refer to the album as “the Chinese Democracy of hip-hop”. Eventually, and just before the release of a second single (the glorious (Gotta) Believe It, above), Just managed to extricate Fort Knocks from its Atlantic deal, taking the masters of Sai’s now somewhat ironically titled album with him. A new deal was said to be in the offing. This was mid-2008, and although one or two cuts from The Greatest Story Never Told have since turned up on mixtapes, the album itself has yet to see daylight.

Miraculously, though, neither has it leaked, and if the latest release date – a somewhat vague “first quarter 2010” – is to be trusted, Just and Sai may actually find themselves bang on trend. Music is one of those fields of endeavour where leading the pack may not always be beneficial. History is littered with tales of innovators who were too far ahead of their time, or of trendsetting performers who had to wait years for the rest of the world to catch up, but perhaps the sight of three rapper’s rappers and three producer’s producers (rather than one of each) all purposefully moving in a similar direction will encourage a few more people to follow.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

“Turn off the lights, and light a candle” - Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)

If you’re of a certain age (as I am), then by now you’ll know the tiresome familiarity of turning on the TV, opening a newspaper or checking a website, to be greeted by the news that yet another significant musical figure from your youth has died. I wasn’t even halfway through the first coffee of the day when I noticed Roots drummer/bandleader Questlove posting a load of Teddy Pendergrass songs in his Twitter feed earlier this morning, so it took a few minutes before I figured out what was up.

Certain voices are probably always going to remind me of less troubled (but no less confusing) times, and Teddy Pendergrass is one of them. When If You Don’t Know Me By Now started getting played on the radio over here in 1972, anyone already attuned to the lush melancholy of increasingly popular Philadelphia vocal groups like the Stylistics would have immediately noticed what set Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes apart from the pack. Instead of the light, Kendricks-influenced falsetto of Russell Thompkins Jr., the voice of the Blue Notes came from somewhere between its owners’ boots and his gut. If nobody had told you otherwise, you might have thought you were listening to David Ruffin on steroids. As it turned out, for a while nobody did tell us, and it was widely assumed by UK audiences that Teddy was actually Harold Melvin. There are a couple of different stories about how he (originally the drummer in the Blue Notes’ rhythm section) became the band’s lead singer. According to one tale, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who’d been trying to sign The Dells to their newly founded Philadelphia International Records label, encouraged Melvin to put Teddy up front because he sounded like Dells lead singer Marvin Junior, and if they couldn’t get the actual Dells, then they were going to create one of their own. The other story - the one they’ll use in the biopic - has Teddy leaping from behind his drum kit in the middle of a Blue Notes show, and grabbing the mic to the amazement of both his band and the audience.

Arguably more than the O’Jays even, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were the definitive act of the PIR era, largely due to Teddy’s voice, personality and charisma, and their hits rapidly began to dry up once he made the decision to go solo in 1976. From his 1977 solo debut and onwards into the 80s, he became a permanent fixture in the US r&b charts, managing to ride out the disco backlash and cementing his “Mr. Luva-Luva” persona to the extent that he could do a succession of “For Women Only” shows without alienating his male audience. There’s a great scene during one episode in Season 5 of Homicide: Life On The Street where Det. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) is at home with his wife Barbara. Their marriage is on the outs, and as is often the case in crumbling relationships, they’re bickering over minor irritations. In this case, it’s the garish and somewhat tacky portrait of Teddy that Meldrick insists should take pride of place on the living room wall and which, it turns out, Barbara has always hated. But what’s interesting about the scene is how there’s no suggestion of anything unusual (beyond simple bad taste, that is) in a grown man hanging a picture of an r&b singer up in his front room.

Perhaps the reason for that is that Teddy personified a kind of undiluted, unapologetic, black masculinity that appealed to both genders. Women loved him, and although men may have envied his charisma, they also admired him for the classy, measured way he asserted his blackness without ever pandering to a mainstream white audience. Plus, those men were the direct beneficiaries of all Teddy's hard work on stage and on record whereas, as the man once memorably complained during an interview, he usually returned to his hotel room alone. Black comics like Eddie Murphy and Lenny Henry were able to lampoon his persona affectionately because they understood what he represented, but elsewhere that persona was reduced to cheeseball cliché and held up by many white rock critics as a shameful example of how far post-disco black pop culture had drifted from the radical ideals of the Black Panthers. All of which completely disregards Teddy’s fondness for socially conscious material throughout his career, as well as ignoring the genuinely subversive Garveyite politics that informed a significant proportion of Philadelphia International’s output during the 70s, even at the height of disco. Once it became public knowledge that his passenger on the night of the 1982 car accident that left him in a wheelchair was a transsexual nightclub performer, many felt that neither his image nor his voice would ever fully recover from the damage, but his core audience stayed characteristically loyal. Tiger Woods should be so lucky.

It’s that voice that he’ll be remembered for, of course – that rich, gritty baritone both mournful and declamatory, simultaneously pleading whilst bristling with righteous anger, able to ride the joyous rhythm of a song like The Love I Lost whilst remaining utterly convincing that he’d suffered the cruellest heartbreak. It never really regained its power after his accident, but it’s testament to the man’s spirit that he continued to record and perform for well over a decade after his 1984 comeback. His persona may have been easy meat for lazy parodists, but there was always a tenderness, warmth and likeability to Teddy that the ‘bedroom bully’ crassness of his present-day equivalents could never hope to convey. There are precious few true soul men left nowadays as it is. We ought to cherish the ones that are still around.

Sorry we lost you, Teddy.


This is a teaser trailer for David Simon’s new series for HBO, Treme, set in the New Orleans district of the same name, the traditional home of the city’s muso community. It doesn’t tell you an awful lot about the story, but according to Simon, the show is centred on the local music scene and also deals with a number of themes familiar to fans of The Wire (political corruption, the criminal justice system), as well as the post-Katrina attempts at regenerating the city. It debuts in the US on April 11. No idea who’s picking it up for broadcast over here, but if it goes to form with HBO shows in the UK, then FX should get first dibs.

Wire geeks will doubtless be delighted that Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters are teaming up once more, although I’m not expecting any “Lester and the Bunk”-type comedy this time out. It’ll be interesting to see how Simon et al tackle the oft-documented ambiguities of the city, particularly since it's said to be one of the most racist yet racially inclusive cities in America. Likewise how they’ll deal with the popular perception of New Orleans as a city in perpetual recovery from Katrina. Given how long Liverpool struggled to leave behind the 1980s post-riots/Thatcherite whipping-boy image it had in the eyes of British dramatists (Jimmy McGovern included, if we’re being completely honest), it's probably wise of Simon to rope in local writers Tom Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie alongside George Pelecanos, so there’s less cause for concern than there might be otherwise.

A few more reasons to hope it reaches our screens sooner rather than later; the excellent Melissa Leo (a veteran of Simon’s Homicide: Life On The Street) is in it, as is Khandi Alexander (The Corner) and, reportedly, John Goodman. Fittingly for a show about musicians, Simon has found room in the cast for Steve Earle, although from what I can gather he’ll be playing a supplementary role similar to that of Walon, his character in The Wire. I understand Wynton Marsalis is also involved on the music side, which doesn’t exactly thrill me. Brilliant musician he may be, but his "guardian of the artform" approach to jazz gets on my pip most of the time. That said, when you’re after the specific kind of accuracy that a project like Treme calls for, then I suppose Wynton is the go-to guy, or at least as good a go-to guy as anyone else. And, to tell the truth, I can almost forgive him his tedious, fusty, academic purism when he sticks to things like this.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

While You Were Sleeping...*

Just as the first decade of the 21st century was limping to a close, and perhaps in an attempt to disprove the maxim that nothing decent is ever released during December, three new tunes quietly surfaced with comparatively little fuss last month. Personally, I thought all three were better than just about anything else released in the whole of 2009 and, while it's more or less certain that at least one of them will reach a mass audience in 2010, they all deserve more attention than they received during that dismal month when half the country was pretending to like Rage Against The Machine.

The track most likely to find its way onto Radio 2's A-list (Radio 1 wouldn't dream of A-listing anyone so old...) is Sade's Soldier Of Love, the title track from her forthcoming album. Not so much a capital-S single as an exercise in mood and atmospherics, I'd be fascinated to hear a dubstep treatment of it (a Mala rework would be amazing, if anyone from Sony happens to be reading). Sade clearly has no interest in trying to compete with what's on the radio right now, whether that happens to be Michael Buble, Paolo Nutini, the Saturdays or Chipmunk – the song is six minutes long, after all - so the absence of a clear, strong hook isn't that important. On American r&b radio, where she's still worshipped as a goddess, they'll play it regardless, and the fact that it doesn't sound formatted to fuck and back won't make a blind bit of difference. It isn't just the grown-and-sexy crowd who'll get behind this, either. Within days of the song being premiered on her official site, rappers were falling over one another to be the first to spit a hot sixteen over its meandering groove and get an unofficial remix of some sort circulating around the net.

Characteristically, Soldier Of Love sounds as if it's been built from the groove upwards, the voice and lyrics seeming no more than another component of the song's atmosphere rather than the centre of it, as might be the case with another singer. Like Pearls or I Never Thought I'd See The Day, the vocal sounds as if it came from within the music rather than something that was worked up elsewhere and added at a later date. All the separate elements - the martial drum motif, the combat metaphors, the stuttering guitar near the end that sounds like gunfire - all sound as if they're vibing off everything else in the track and everything sounds exactly where it's supposed to be. It's tremendous stuff, but whether it'll be enough to prevent lazy hacks trotting out a succession of cliches about 80s wine bars when the time comes to review the album remains to be seen. Despite being in the game for almost exactly the same length of time (as well as being around the same age), Sade's never shown any inclination to mimic Madonna's eagerness to be seen to be on top of whatever the cutting-edge sound is. In fact, much like Portishead (who we'll come to in a moment), she continues to strike me as someone who knows precisely what she's aiming for every time and is prepared to shut herself away for as long as it takes, in complete defiance of passing trends, until she gets what she wants. And again, much like Portishead, the finished article will sound as if it couldn't possibly have been made by anyone else.

Within a few days of Soldier Of Love reaching the web, Portishead marked International Human Rights Day by slipping the leash on a new song, Chase The Tear, making it available for download exclusively via 7Digital and donating all profits to Amnesty International. Given that the band usually works at the sort of pace that would make a Tarkovsky flick seem to zip along like Usain Bolt or something, it came as quite a shock that some new material should surface within 18 months of the magnificent Third. Perhaps less surprising is that the wintry analog spookiness of Third’s best track, The Rip, seems to have led them toward something that sounds a little like Can remixed by Giorgio Moroder. Let’s just look at that again, shall we? New Portishead music without the customary years-long wait, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s probably the closest they’ve ever got to a dance record. Oh, no - nothing interesting ever gets released in December…

As sure as night follows day, anything Portishead do will either be described as “moody”, or will be greeted with a chorus of grouchy demands that Beth Gibbons cheer up and try working in a call centre if she wants something to be miserable about. Funny thing is - and I may as well go for the world record on Things You Never Thought You’d Write About Portishead here - Chase The Tear really does sound like a group of musicians having fun again. It’s driven by a surging motorik judder that manages to sound exhilarating and claustrophobic at the same time, and while it isn’t exactly Music Sounds Better With You, it’s still quite a way from what Portishead seemed to have become between their last two albums; a band apparently so repulsed by the idea of their music soundtracking chi-chi dinner parties and “edgy” TV dramas that they were paralysed with fear at the thought of making a record people might actually, y'know, like. Well, I’m quite pleased I was wrong about that, and if 2010 sees the release of a fourth Portishead album, that’ll be another nice surprise.

Not as nice a surprise, however, as a tangible physical release by the most intriguing rapper to emerge in the latter half of the decade would be. Yes, Jay Electronica's handle is an unwieldy one – a little corny, even – but as anyone who’s been following this New Orleans-born emcee for the last few years will tell you, once you hear him, you'll know it really wouldn’t matter a tuppenny fuck if he called himself The Reverend Kenny Carl Jackson-Jones Dominguez IV or Barack Hussein Obama. Web buzz can be a fickle thing in the hip-hop world, as Papoose and Charles Hamilton can probably testify, but Jay Elec has avoided the established path of mixtape after mixtape and more guest verses than Busta and Jadakiss combined. Instead he’s gone for a steady drip-drip of internet-only releases (often an indication that your status most assuredly ain’t hood, although not in this case) punctuated by the odd thing you can buy at iTunes, the most recent being Exhibit C.

Built on an incredible, neck-snapping beat by Just Blaze (one of JE’s earliest champions) crafted from a few diced-and-sliced chunks of Billy Stewart’s gorgeous 1967 soul ballad Cross My Heart, Exhibit C is one of those songs you don’t - can't - listen to just the once. If it had been released back in the days of analog mixtapes, I guarantee you that kids would have been hitting the rewind button again and again on this, trying to catch every last, dazzling syllable of verses that – honestly, it's this good – are almost the equal of vintage Rakim or Illmatic-era Nas in terms of imagination, audacity and self-assurance. "Swagger", I think the kids are calling it now. Just listen to that last verse. I mean, fucking hell. It’s one of those all-too-rare tunes that unites the backpackers and the how-about-some-hardcore types, simply because it deals directly with the fundamentals of rap music – beats and rhymes – and does so with such purpose, intelligence and unwavering, I-don’t-mean-to-brag-I-don’t-mean-to-boast self-confidence that time-served rap fans have described it as “like hearing hip-hop for the first time”. Just Blaze himself orchestrated a Twitter campaign that pushed the song into the top 10 of the US iTunes Hip-Hop chart in the third week of December. Yeah, imagine that, eh? People buying music they like in the hope of livening up the charts at Christmas. I wonder if it’ll catch on? Put it this way; if you like rap, then you can’t not like this.

(* - yeah, like I can talk...)