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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The Funky Soul Dance Craze

 

Herein lies the “Land of the 1000 Dances,” a Shangri-la of popcorn grooves and sock-hop fun. Everybody knows how to “Twist & Shout,” but can you do the “Mashed Potatoes?” Yeah? Well, how about the “Harlem Shuffle?” You move it to the left, yeah, ‘til you go for yourself. You move it to the right, yeah, if it takes all night. Hey, I think you got it! Now “Walk the Dog,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” and do the “Loco-Motion.” C’mon, don’t let it up now! We’re “Barefootin’!” “Shake” it honey, and do the “Wah Watusi!” Look at you go! You’re lookin’ good, baby.

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Open Mike Eagle & Paul White, “Dang is Invincible”

On the surface, this visual accompaniment to “Dang is Invincible” doesn’t seem to have much to do with Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics about powering through life in spite of his insecurities. However, an artist statement from director Alex Pierre, who headed the DOULZIA animation team that made the video, reveals otherwise. It’s worth reading:

“Conceptually the video parallels Mike’s stream of consciousness and the narrative style of rap. The video follows Studio Doulzia’s Noul (the protagonist of their film concept Skeletonblood) moving through train cars in a New York Subway Q Train. Noul anxiously looks for a train car where she can feel at ease, her journey speaks to finding assurance and humor in the subtle unfamiliarities that exist within the atmosphere of intimate settings like train cars, that otherwise could make a person feel vulnerable. The song felt really visceral, and we wanted to capture that as much as we can visually.”

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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The World of LA BTS

The Los Angeles electronic music scene is unlike any other in the world. For one thing, it is closely-knit – its main participants have usually worked together, cross-pollinating at avenues like underground radio broadcaster Dublab.com or the weekly club showcase Low End Theory. Their proximity to one another results in a sound that listeners have struggled to name ever since. Some just call it “beats,” which might partly be a legacy of a podcast called BTS Radio that helped spread the sound during its early years.

The beats sound emerged from instrumental hip-hop and downtempo. Instrumental hip-hop in particular has a curious history. Back in the late 1990s, it essentially died in the mainstream when club DJs stopped blending rap and R&B with instrumental “breaks” made by Frankie Cutlass, DJ Spinna, Mark the 45 King and others; and started mashing the latest hits together. (It was also when mainstream rap DJs stopped cutting and mixing and devolved into carnival barkers. But that’s another story.) While virtually ignored by radio rap fans, it continued to flourish in the underground, thanks to DJ Shadow’s elaborate sample pastiches, Madlib’s dusty beat loops, and others.

In the early 2000s, major developments elsewhere inspired LA beat producers to push into deeper waters. There was the glitch-hop trend, personified by Prefuse 73 and Dabrye, as well as groundbreaking UK imprints such as Ninja Tune and Warp Records. Detroit’s J Dilla and Waajeed mixed swaggering rap beats with electronic funk. Back in LA, Daedelus made an eccentric swirl of modern classical techniques and dance rhythms. There were the electronic duo Ammoncontact, the downtempo producer Nobody, the soul-jazz orchestra Build An Ark, and beat makers like Omid, Take and Ras G. In 2003, there was the landmark compilation Mu.sic, which debuted producers like GB (Gifted and Blessed) and DJ Exile.

2006 was a watershed year. J Dilla, who by then had relocated to L.A., finished his Donuts masterpiece before he passed away. Producer, mastering engineer, Alpha Pup Records owner and scene godfather Daddy Kev launched Low End Theory. And Flying Lotus, a former Stones Throw intern who cut his teeth spinning tracks on Dublab.com, released 1983 on local label Plug Research. When Warp signed him the following year, his subsequent string of works like 2010’s Cosmogramma turned LA into a global mecca for beats music.

Today, the LA beats scene cuts wide and deep. There is the “lazer bass” of the Glitch Mob; MPC-smacking, head-nod-inducing “blappers” like Samiyam, Jonwayne and Dibia$e; the atmospheric ambience of Teebs and Mono/Poly; the folk-inflected, electronics-infused indie-pop of Baths and Matthewdavid; and the baroque psychedelics of the Gaslamp Killer. Leading lights such as Nosaj Thing, Shlohmo and Tokimonsta evolve in new ways as they flirt with R&B, radio pop, and sundry post-millennial trends. Despite the eclecticism of these various artists, they share a common lineage that’s regional and wholly distinctive in sound.

(Rhapsody – October 9, 2014)