Spotlight On: Earth, Wind & Fire

Earth, Wind & Fire was the biggest black rock band of the 1970s. But today, it’s among the era’s most misunderstood platinum acts. The group’s discography nearly mirrors black music’s evolution, from the Afrocentric jazz of the Black Panther years to the quiet storm balladry and slick corporate funk that marked the end of that tumultuous decade with a merciful whimper. Its visionary leader, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Maurice White sought to encapsulate it all, and he succeeded remarkably. When you hear an Earth, Wind & Fire record, you know it. The soaring brass section led by Andrew Woolfolk and the Phenix Horns, the marvelous interplay between White’s cool spoken-sung vocals and Philip Bailey’s lush falsetto, and White’s kalimba (an African finger piano) gave them a unique, oft-copied sound. However, their capacity for hit singles has sometimes reduced them to pop culture clichés, whether it was 1979’s wildly over-the-top disco nugget “Boogie Wonderland” or Julia Louis-Dreyfus doing the funky white-girl dance to “Shining Star” on Seinfeld.

Then there’s that other black rock juggernaut of the Seventies, Parliament-Funkadelic. The two organizations were rivals, and P-Funk figurehead George Clinton claimed that EWF was “earth, all wind, and no fire.” They celebrated the African-American experience in markedly different ways. P-Funk adopted a cryptic language based on street slang, black popular culture and authors like Ishmael Reed. Their music was often intentionally cryptic, which not only protected them from homogenization (or “the placebo syndrome”) but also created a cult of believers dedicated to propagating Clinton’s message of funk epiphany.

White designed EWF as a mainstream rock experience that would introduce his ideas to a mass audience. He began his career in 1960s Chicago as a session drummer for Chess Records, and spent time gigging with contemporary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. By the time White moved out to Los Angeles with several friends to form EWF in 1970, he had begun developing a complex philosophy of cosmology, Afro-Christian spirituality, and New Age karma. As the group’s success grew, White’s use of Egyptian symbols like pyramids and hieroglyphs increased. Many critics blanched at his koan-like lyrics on songs like “All About Love” (from That’s The Way Of The World) and “Be Ever Wonderful” (from All ‘N All). He was aware of his detractors. On the latter, he sang, “What I’d like to tell you may not be what you see.” Another All ‘N All track, “Runnin’,” juxtaposed chants of “You want to get down, you got to take it on up” with White’s edict that “If you don’t understand, it’s your fault.” Although not all of EWF’s millions of fans (or even some of its members) dig as deep as this cheat sheet or understand the Egyptology references, they love the band for its life-affirming music.

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A Guide to Madlib (Circa 2011)

I’ve written about and interviewed Madlib many times over the years. I may have written about him more than any other hip-hop artist, with the possible exception of Kanye West (who I almost had a chance to interview — but that’s a story for another time). This post dates back to 2011, when he was finishing his Madlib Medicine Show project, and gathers some of my thoughts and opinions about his work. It’s also a good starter kit for his ever-growing catalog.

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Last year, Otis “Madlib” Jackson, Jr. made plans for a Madlib Medicine Show: twelve releases consisting of six albums of original material and six mixtapes of songs by other artists. It proved a failure, with just nine installments reaching market, including a tenth chapter and no ninth. Add those discs to gigs producing Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson and Guilty Simpson’s OJ Simpson, and excursions such as Young Jazz Rebels’ Slave Riot and the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble’s Miles Away, and that only made for … thirteen releases in 2010. Amusingly, Madlib couldn’t finish the Medicine Show, but he couldn’t curb his excessive productivity, either.

Madlib is an unapologetic throwback to the pop and jazz years of the 50s and 60s, when musicians would simply participate in recording sessions, and labels would compile albums from the best material. This could lead to several titles a year from best-selling bandleaders like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra – a far cry from the new-every-two strategy employed by today’s pop stars. Madlib functions the same way as his heroes: he records constantly, and occasionally stops to compile the results into yet another release.

Thanks to classics such as Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Madlib is regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of the past decade. Unlike Timbaland, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West, or even J Dilla, he remains an underground phenomenon, issuing nearly all his material on indie imprint Stones Throw Records. Certainly, he has never had a mainstream hit. However, major artists with an appreciation for progressive beats have sought him out: he made tracks for Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, and Ghostface Killah’s More Fish. Rumors abound that he contributed uncredited tracks to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and that he may land some credits on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s forthcoming Watch the Throne. It’s impossible to understand the genre’s recent developments without listening to his work.

With the reclusive producer set to restart the Medicine Show series this month with No. 11: Low Budget Hi-Fi Music, it’s a good time to take a deep dive into the Madlib Invazion.

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Notes On: Nina Simone

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Nina Simone is having a cultural moment. Songs like “Feeling Good” and “I Put a Spell on You” are used in numerous TV shows and commercials. A memorable Felix Da Housecat remix of “Sinnerman” continues to get play in nightclubs around the world. One of the most popular songs from Kanye West’s Yeezus, “Blood on the Leaves,” liberally samples from her haunting rendition of the anti-slavery classic “Strange Fruit.” The indie band Xiu Xiu recently issued Nina, a collection of songs she wrote and/or made famous. Last year, Meshell Ndegeocello did the same with Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to nina simone. Finally, there is the controversial biopic on Simone’s final years in France, Nina, scheduled for release next year.

So the woman once lauded as the High Priestess of Soul seems remarkably present. But her activism, and the way she challenged audiences with her fearsome intellect, seems distant from our current societal mores for cheery pop capitalism. It is true that Xiu Xiu and Ndegeocello, both out-and-proud performers, have paid homage to a woman whose sexuality is the subject of fierce academic and fan debate. But lost on the contemporary listener is the way she incorporated motifs from classical and jazz compositions into her work. A mid-20th century listener that was raised on piano lessons and the great American songbook would have immediately picked up on these allusions. A post-millennial listener mostly educated through pop radio would not.

Simone, who passed away over ten years ago, left behind an intimidating catalog. Some were live performances, others were recorded in the studio, and many are a mixture of both. Her 1958 debut, Little Girl Blue, yielded the only top 40 hit of her career in “I Loves You Porgy,” which caught fire after the fortuitous release of the 1959 hit movie Porgy & Bess. But she didn’t earn her title as a vital cult act a la the great Gil Scott-Heron. Her albums sold well, and she landed a few hits on the R&B charts, too, including 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

Where to dive in? Her voice, so deep and sonorous, yet sharp and expressive like a lovingly plucked cello bass, is a wonder everyone should hear.

Spotlight On: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Detroit-born grande dame of American popular music, is as much Elvis Presley-sized legend as flesh-and-blood human being. She sang at the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, and at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. She made her first album, a live recording in front of an entranced audience, in 1956 at the age of 14. Bonnie Raitt once said, “I learned way more about being a woman from listening to her sing ‘Respect’ than I did from any man.” To generations of people around the world, she is a goddess, the living embodiment of a “natural woman.”

Simply known as Aretha, the daughter of the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, she has produced a discography that stretches across five decades, from 1956’s Precious Lord, which the Rev. Franklin released himself and has been reissued several times since; to 2011’s A Woman Falling Out Of Love, which Aretha issued through her own label, Aretha’s Records, and distributed exclusively through Wal-Mart. Most fans tend to stick to her classic hit singles, from “Think” and “Something He Can Feel” to “Jump To It” and “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” Out of the three dozen or so albums she made, only a few receive serious critical attention: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, the 1967 album that made her a superstar; 1968’s Lady Soul; and Amazing Grace, one of the biggest-selling gospel albums of all time.

However, it’s worth digging beneath the Aretha myth for a closer listen. Born in 1942, she was in thrall to her father, a civil-rights pioneer whose style of preaching influenced the Rev. King, and hosted a nationally syndicated radio show. (Her late sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were accomplished singers in their own right, and would later write songs and sing backing vocals for Aretha.) By the time Aretha was in her teens, she was accustomed to performing for the Rev. Franklin’s gospel friends at his house, including Mahalia Jackson (who changed Aretha’s diapers as a baby), Sam Cooke and Clara Ward. When Cooke became a pop star in the late 1950s, he often took Aretha on his tours. On Precious Lord, it’s stunning to hear the young Aretha exhibit the same gifts she would unveil to the world a decade later, from her accomplished use of melisma, and an ability to extend and rearrange vocal melodies, to the brilliant way she accompanies her vocal flights of fancy on piano.

John Hammond, the famed talent scout and producer whose discoveries range from Billie Holliday to, later, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, signed her to Columbia Records in 1960. (Interestingly, Berry Gordy tried to recruit her for Motown Records, but her family ruled against signing with the then-small, fledgling label.) Her eight Columbia albums are widely derided for their emphasis on pop chestnuts like “Over the Rainbow” (Aretha) and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” (The Electrifying Aretha Franklin), but she never abandoned her love of the great American songbook, even after she evolved from a jazz-pop singer in the mold of Dinah Washington to a deep soul pioneer. The worst that can be said about these early albums is that they lack spark, whether it’s the producers with whom she worked, or her inability to create an emotional connection in her performances, or the material itself. It doesn’t help that many of them are marred by gooey string arrangements typical of sophisticated 60s cabaret pop. Aretha, which she recorded with pianist Ray Bryant and several jazz musicians, may be the best of the lot, since Hammond arranges spare accompaniment that puts a spotlight on her voice.

When Aretha’s contract with Columbia expired, she signed with Atlantic Records. Producer and label co-founder Jerry Wexler, inspired by his success distributing Memphis-based Stax Records, decided to record a “Southern” album with Aretha at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios, the site of so many Stax classics by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and many others. But only the title track of I Never Loved A Man was recorded at Fame Studios. An altercation involving Aretha’s volatile former husband-manager, Ted White, led to Wexler moving the sessions to New York City. However, Wexler and the group of musicians whom would soon be known as the Muscle Shoals sound created a template that Aretha would follow for the next five years, eight studio albums, and three live albums. Her reputation largely rests on these performances made between 1967 and 1972, when she remarkably synthesized blues, gospel and jazz into a blueprint for soul music that resonates today. Listening to each album individually, it’s amazing how many of the songs began as signature tunes for others: Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” and, of course, Otis Redding’s “Respect.” They’re a testament to her musical genius, and the way she stamps her imprint on them through sheer personality.

Still, Aretha is unabashedly a pop creature, and her post-1972 output has led her down numerous detours, from noble but failed experiments like 1973’s Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky); to successful contemporary R&B forays like her two albums with Luther Vandross, 1982’s Jump To It and 1983’s Get It Right, and 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose. She may be living history, but she has rarely felt burdened by it. Each new release is an opportunity to “bop,” as she once put it, and try on something new. It makes for an intimidating and haphazardly brilliant catalog of music that rewards deep listening.

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Notes on Max B

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Charly “Max B” Wingate didn’t become a mainstream rap superstar when he emerged from Jim Jones’ Byrd Gang in 2005. But the Harlem rapper’s subsequent avalanche of mixtapes and viral videos made him an underground icon. He’s the creator of “wavy,” a term that not only describes his idiosyncratic style, but has become part of hip-hop slang. His music isn’t easy to digest. He often warbles tunelessly and out of key to accentuate his punchy street raps. But to his legion of fans, songs like “Paperwork,” “Picture Me Rollin’,” and “Goon Musik (We Run N.Y.),” the latter which fancifully uses a sample from Sting’s “Englishman in New York” communicate raw, guttural feelings that can’t be quantified by technique. His longtime producer Dame Grease has compared his work to the blues.

Since ghostwriting Jones’ top ten hit “We Fly High,” Max B has had a peripatetic career. In and out of prison since his teens, he was charged in a robbery-and-murder conspiracy just as Jones’ “We Fly High” was scaling the pop charts. Out on bail during a three-year period – a waiting game he describes on the track “I Never Wanna Go Back” — he broke with Jones, built a movement, and found a talented acolyte in French Montana before he was convicted and sent to prison in 2009. While he continues to appeal his 75-year sentence, French Montana has kept his name alive. You can hear Max B’s voice on “Once in a While,” the opening track from French Montana’s major-label debut “Excuse My French.”

(Rhapsody – February 18, 2014)