Spotlight On: Prince in the ’80s

Prince - Dirty Mind

In 2013, I compiled a package for Rhapsody on Prince’s 80s oeuvre.  Unfortunately, that material is difficult to access online now — not least because he removed his catalog from all streaming services except for TIDAL, so my reviews attached to those albums disappeared as well — so I’m reposting it here in honor of the late funk genius.

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This spotlight only covers Prince’s 1980s recordings because, well, it’s nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful – until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6’s 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.

Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well because Prince’s reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself – including the double-album 1999 — each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically-hailed work like Sign O’ The Times; and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely-bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album, has been called the most bootlegged-album of all time. Throughout this period, Prince wrote hits for himself, like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”; and for others, including Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.”

With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heel boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award’s winner, into an effusive speech of praise while Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.

Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described “Horny Toad,” but we’re all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that’s why his music seems so taboo – and yes, making songs about incest (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”) don’t help. Ditties about fucking are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.

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Gangrene, ‘You Disgust Me’

Gangrene - You Disgust Me

When you hear an Alchemist beat, you know it. He’s refined his style over 15 years and hundreds of productions, from Prodigy’s thug-rap high-water mark Return of the Mac to brilliant loosies for Dilated Peoples (“Worst Comes to Worst”), Nas (“Book of Rhymes”) and Raekwon (“Surgical Gloves”). His sound moves between two poles. There are the loops woven out of all manner of sample fodder, like the superior Israeli Salad instrumental suite he released earlier this year that excavates records purchased during a trip to Israel. Then there’s his coldly synthesized gangster music, best displayed on Mobb Deep’s mid-’00s hit “Got It Twisted”, and seemingly inspired by New Wave pop and ’80s crime soundtracks like Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface and Tangerine Dream’s Thief. Both types of Alchemist beats are clipped and chopped like vintage DJ Premier, yet they also rumble at a leisurely West Coast tempo.

Alchemist does consistently entertaining work, but it’s become predictable after over a decade and too much music—so far this year, he’s dropped Israeli Salad and Retarded Alligator Beats joints, and now comes Gangrene’s You Disgust Me. Yet Al’s Gangrene project with Oh No gives both a chance to subvert their well-worn templates into something more dynamic. The two complement each other: Oh No likes to flip vinyl from exotic sources, too, whether it’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium or Exodus into Unheard Rhythms, the latter built around Galt MacDermot’s catalog.He tends to be underrated—it’s unlikely that most people who heard Dr. Dre’s Compton and its “Issues” track know that Oh No also sampled Turkish folk singer Selda’s “Ince Ince” with his 2007 track “Heavy”, which Mos Def used for his 2009 single “Supermagic.” And while his dependence on traditionalist sample loops runs deeper than Alchemist, he uses rhythm more dynamically.

Both Alchemist and Oh No approach Gangrene’s You Disgust Me as an excursion into weed-hazed hip-hop psychedelia: Snippets of whacked-out voices, culled from some late night VHS videodrome, and dudes talking greasy over digger’s delights. (RIP Sean Price, who drops a jewel on “Sheet Music” alongside Mobb Deep’s Havoc.) It’s a formula that Gangrene established over its two albums, Gutter Water and Vodka & Ayahuasca, light themes that bracket the usual backpack thuggery. The thirteen tracks add up to just under 40 minutes, and often seem to blend in with one another. Peaks like “Noon Chuckas,” and how its ominous big band buildup smooths out into a female voice’s hypnotic glissando, sound indistinguishable from knuckleheaded errata like “Driving Gloves,” and Action Bronson’s brain fart about needing “a bitch with a pussy like like a Little League glove.”

As rappers, the words Alchemist and Oh No say are less interesting than the sound of their slangy, chippy voices riffing over the blappers. Their peak You Disgust Me moment arrives on “The Man with the Horn”, which draws equal inspiration from Miles Davis-styled melancholy, and New York noir vis-à-vis Travis Bickle audio. Al visualizes himself as a loner wandering the streets, “stumble out the bar, vision blurry/ Humphrey Bogart, face underneath the rim of my derby.” Oh No adds, “It’s looking like a scene out of Vegas/ It’s nighttime, and the jazz jukebox is playing.” It offers a glimpse of what Gangrene could be if it was more than just headnod music stuffed with weed jokes. Both are more than capable of crafting memorable hip-hop music, even if they’re too focused on cranking out bangers at an industrial rate to notice whether anything they’ve made stands out.

(August 11, 2015 – Pitchfork)

RIP Sean Price

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For the cover art of Sean Price’s 2012 album Mic Tyson, Raphael Tangal depicted the rapper as a hulking figure with impossibly large muscles, a microphone in one hand, and standing amidst a field of dead and bloodied apes – a metaphor for murdered MCs. It’s an image that Price embodied through his bellicose raps, and claims that he’d give you “wings on your back.”

But Price was also a married husband and practicing Muslim with three children. When the 43-year-old musician died in his sleep on August 8, we were once again reminded of the stark difference between the aura of invincibility that so many rappers promote to us, and the real life men and women behind that image who are just as frail and human as we are.

For rap fans of a certain vintage, Price was a familiar voice. Based out of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, his career dated back to 1995, when he and Jahmal “Rock” Bush appeared as Heltah Skeltah on Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ and, most impressively, the Fab 5’s “Leflah.” Collectively, the Boot Camp Clik was emblematic of New York rap in the mid-90s. They were street soldiers who described a life of everyday violence, and used weed as a “third eye” opener as well as to blunt life’s pain. For them, hip-hop was a ritual and proving ground, and their sharp-elbowed raps, which eschewed lyrical complexity in favor of punch lines that just went for the throat, anticipated later thug rap crews like G-Unit and D-Block.

Heltah Skeltah released a critically acclaimed debut in 1996, Nocturnal. But Sean Price wouldn’t emerge as a real force, someone who people knew by name instead of his BCC affiliation, until a decade later. By the time Monkey Barz appeared on Duck Down in 2005, the label had floundered for years as it tried to promote BCC amidst a mainstream-obsessed New York scene. The album arrived at just the right time, satisfying listeners who wanted an alternative to the slick thug rap made by Jay Z and 50 Cent, but didn’t care for the experimental underground sounds of El-P’s Definitive Jux camp. Led by Price (as well as Buckshot and other resurgent BCC fam), Duck Down charted a middle path that felt innovative given the overly commercialized era, yet proudly conservative as well.

Over three solo albums as well as side projects like 2012’s Random Axe, Price embodied a bullying kind of rap orthodoxy. But he wasn’t afraid to parody that image, whether in songs like “Straight Music” from Mic Tyson, where the chorus repeats his nickname “P!” with a wink, or in YouTube videos like his hilarious “Rap Clinic” series. No matter how much he mean-mugged on the mic, he let his audience know that it was all in good fun. It’s his mischievous quality that made Sean Price so memorable.

Photo from Duckdown.com.

(August 14 – Rhapsody)

L’Orange & Kool Keith, ‘Time? Astonishing!’

Time AstonishingAs a rising producer from North Carolina, L’Orange has built a sound signature rooted in the past yet wholly his own. You can trace a line between his MPC rips of black-and-white TV shows back to Madlib’s zonked-out tapestries on Madvillainy, and Daedelus’ surrealist lounge music for The Weather. But over the past few years, and especially in 2015 through projects like After the Flowers and The Night Took Us In Like Family (the latter made with L.A. rapper Jeremiah Jae), the man who bears the same name as Gilbert Bécaud’s 1964 French chanson has cobbled something wholly unique. On his best work, he stacks his vocal snatches into something approaching a narrative, and adds bebop and exotica tones, while creating enough rhythmic thrust to avoid slumping into a downtempo-like torpor.

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