"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

“[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me ”

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”

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Contacting me via Twitter @quante_jubila

Please note that I have disabled the “contact” option at this site because of problems with the linked email, basically I haven’t received anything that might have been sent over the past few weeks or so. The best way to reach me is via Twitter @quante_jubila. I encourage you to get in touch with your comments on my work, or any feedback at all. I always appreciate it.

That said, I’m cutting back my Twitter presence, for want of a better word, as I focus on writing the long-planned book on Paris/France and also trying to maintain a more steady flow of content on this site. Writing this work, which started as something very quiet and personal has opened up so many opportunities for me, improved my life in all senses, while helping me feel part of a community of kindred spirits. But now it’s time to write that book that has been gestating so long in my mind.

I’d like to again thank people who have been in touch with comments here, as well as all those who have supported me and my work over the last few years. All of you have helped me continue and I’m grateful for that. Paix

“Hop Special (Whiter Shade of Pale),” Roland Alphonso prod. Derrick Morgan, 7” (Pyramid, 1968) w/Alton Ellis, Pat Kelly & Lynn Taitt & The Jets plus more

“Roland’s flavor was one of the first tastes of the nation’s emerging musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped Jamaican music at its “Boogie Shuffle” inception and into Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.”

Brian Keyo, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998 - A Remembrance of The Chief Musician, SoulVendors.com, 2003(?)

Embedded in this version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by the artist dubbed “The Chief Musician” of Jamaica, Roland Alphonso is the alchemy that so often defines essential recordings in any genre: the fusion of the individual artist’s spirit, with history, the expression of a clear voice that is enhanced by echoes of the past.

This performance, or interpretation remains open, expressing vulnerability where contrasts can co-exist. There is something both melancholy and stirring about this music, from the very opening moments, in its purposefully naive interpretation of the extremely famous song. My use of the word “naive” is not a criticism, but quite the reverse, as I have never liked the Procol Harum original – here is a video of a 1968 live performance - that was a massive hit (winning a Grammy, reaching first place on the UK charts, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide), but I love the Roland Alphonso version and some other reggae takes, also included here.

Some have said that the Procol Harum song is the most popular/best/greatest British song of all time, sharing the honour with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody: two songs notable for their inclusion of the word “fandango” in their lyrics. The original may, or may not borrow from the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, one of the group’s song-writers, Allan Moore has said that there is “a certain family resemblance” that “creates the sense of [Bach’s] music but no direct quotation. (The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, apparently).

Here is a truly beautiful performance of the Bach piece by the Mito Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from 1990. I realise that the video might be a bit distracting, to get a sense of the wonder of the performance it might be best to listen to the music without it. Notice how the musicians allow the music to stay still at certain moments, allowing the music to rest before returning to the fold.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Street 66" (Bass Culture, Island Records, 1980)

The room was dark
Dusk howling softly 6 o'clock
Charcoal light
The fine sight
Was moving black
The sound was music mellow steady flow
And man son mind just mystic red, green, red, green
Your scene

No man would dance but leap and shake
That shock through feeling right
Shape that sound
Tumbling down
Making movement, ruff enuff
Cos when the music met I taps
I felt the sting, knew the shock, yeah, had to do and ride the rock
Outta dis rock shall come a greener riddim
Even more dread than what the breeze of glory bred
Vibrating violence is how wi move
Rocking with green rhythm
The drought and dry root out

The mighty poet I Roy was on the wire
Weston did a skank and each man laugh and feeling irie, dread I
Street 66, the said man said
Any policeman come here will get some righteous, raasclot licks
Yeah mon, whole heapa licks

Hours beat, the scene moving right
When all on a sudden
Bam, bam, bam, a knocking pon the door
"Who is dat?", aksed Weston, feeling right
"Open up, it's the police, come on, open up"
"What address do you want?"
"Number 66, come on, open up"
Weston, feeling high, replied, "Yes, this is Street 66, step right in and
Take some licks."

Reading "Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life" by Ezra Bayda (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2003)

“An ambitious long-time meditator comes to see a Zen teacher. As soon as the student sits down, the teacher asks, “What’s the basic human problem?” The student ponders this, then answers, “We’re not awake.” The teacher says, “Yes, but those are just words. You’re just thinking.” And ringing the bell, he sends the student away.

Perturbed, the student continues to ponder, “What is the basic human problem?”, determined to figure it out. A week later he returns. The teacher says, “Well, have you figured out what the basic human problem is?” The student replies, “Yes. The basic human problem is that we think too much. We’re identified with our thinking. We believe our thoughts.” The teacher answers, “Again, you’re just thinking. You have to see the basic human problem yourself.” The student leaves feeling very dejected.

Wanting to find the right answer, the student pulls out his Zen books to read and study. When he returns to see the teacher, he’s almost strutting, he’s so aware he knows the answer to this question. Seeing the state he’s in, the teacher asks, “What’s the basic human problem?” And the student says, “There is no problem!” He’s so happy with his answer. The teacher just stares at him and says, “Then what are you doing here?” In that moment the student instantly deflates. His shoulders drop, his head drops; he feels totally humiliated. Peering at him, the teacher asks, “What are you experiencing right now?” The student, without even looking up, says, “I just feel like crawling into a hole.” At this point the teacher says to him, “If you can fully experience this feeling, then you’ll understand the basic human problem.”

“The Substitute Life” pp.47-48

I have the strangest relationship with this (wonderful) book by Ezra Bayda, Being Zen - Bringing Meditation to Life. I carry it around with me in my bag, thinking I’ll read it on the metro, or when waiting for an appointment; I read parts of it when scrunched up in the bath (more the deep basin of the shower), read a section, then say, no I know this, to start another part and have the same response: no, I’ve read this already, I know this. I then put the book to one side, add it to the pile, I never seem to finish it, but still I keep returning to it.

Related article: Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations' published May, 22 2017

Versions: “Never let go”/”Forever and Always” Carlton and the Shoes, prod. Coxsone Dodd (Studio One, 7” 1968?) live performance & more

You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...


Surely one of the greatest dub reggae love songs, or love songs of any genre; each time I hear the way Carlton Manning sings his vocal part, enclosed by the supporting harmonies that creates a kind of claustrophobic intensity, it kills me, just a little bit.

Lyrically, musically in terms of its overall tone, its production vision, few songs come close. Certainly there are other reggae vocalists who have comparable talent as singers, but this song - largely thanks to the Coxsone Dodd production sound (listen to the unexpected hidden-away drums that only appear sometimes, after introducing the song so confidently) has an otherworldly mood all of its own.

There are so many elements to highlight: to take one the pause after “my” for no apparent reason other than to draw attention to the “cup of tea” in the sweet couplet: You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...

Released by Studio 1 as the AA-side (not B-side) of his hit, “Love Me Forever,” one of reggae’s foundational songs -

(the info linked to the Soul Jazz reissue from 2017 supplies a different release date) produced by Coxsone Dodd (Carlton Manning says that Dodd underpaid artists - he was also given £ 5 by Lee “Scratch” Perry in another context - see the interview below, causing him to move on).

On YouTube there are two versions of the song with this title that sound dramatically different; here is the second. I’m not sure if the difference in sound relates to different versions/recording sessions, or the way they’ve been uploaded online. The track’s muffled quality disappears in the second, which is a shame as this submerged quality is what distinguishes it and makes it so affecting.

Countless capital-R romantic Lovers rock songs, deep on melody were recorded in Jamaica in the 1960s on, but usually the tone of the songs is clear with the vocals the dominant element, just like a pop song. The tone shifting between upbeat, mournful or threatening (warning the departed lover how much she’ll miss him now she has left him) - think about the catalogue of Ken Boothe or Honey Boy.

In contrast, this song has such a dense sound with that over-exaggerated bassline taking prominence over the guitars, drums and pulsing with such an intensity. Basslines in dub are often key – exposed and allowed to be the sole element – but the way this song is recorded/mixed makes it sound as if the bass is distorted, it’s so prominent, relentless and constant. The contrast between it and the sweet vocals is really something.

Similarly, the track’s intensity comes from not only the bringing the vocals right at the top and the way they are recorded: Carlton Manning sings the beginning of each line alone, to be joined for the latter part by the other vocalists. This is strikingly different from many/most reggae songs, which depend on a call & response dynamic between the vocalists, where the singer is “met” by another voice, and often one of a contrasting character for contrast, effect and frequently humour. (This use of contrast between voices and parts continues on in hip-hop, of course).

To stay with the way the vocals come in so early, just before 15 seconds: this is the signature of other famous dub/reggae songs say The Congos’ “Fisherman” from Heart of the Congos, released in 1977 on Blood & Fire Records:

But here the singer/backing vocalists interaction is maintained, so it’s not exactly the same as “Never let go” and is generally more conventional despite the beginning (and extraordinary sound). Listening to the Carlton & The Shoes song it’s almost as if Dodd is not only recording it, but imagining this song with vocals as if it were an instrumental, with no space between the two principal elements as is normally the case, i.e. no separation between the vocals and the music. This strikes me as innovative, forward-thinking.

Other groups - recordings from the same year, see this cover by The Gaylads/Soul Vendors of “Sound of Silence” also on Studio 1 and produced by Dodd- follows a more familiar pop song structure, allowing the song to build first:

The performance here is wonderful and has that submerged-production, which might be the defining quality of Coxsone’s work at this time, but sounds old-fashioned compared to the Carlton & The Shoes song. To get a sense of how Coxsone Dodd’s production style is so distinctive, check out this much cleaner cover by Roland Alphonso.

I like the muted vocals in this version of the song, the way Carlton Manning sounds distracted and preocuppied and the dub.

The extended version above is credited as having the Family as producer, the overall feel is less intense, more sweetly melodic than the one by Coxsone Dodd with the emphasis on on the horns solo - it more predictable and pretty, but still nice, the very simple dub especially.

In a 2016 interview with Angus Taylor for unitedreggae.com Manning shared stories about Dennis Brown, their trip to London that Brown organised where Manning had to keep returning to the airport to get visa extensions so he could remain in the U.K. and how his group got its name.

How did your original name Carlton and the Shades become Carlton and the Shoes?

Let me see. I have a problem with shoes. I have a disease when it comes to shoes. The most expensive things, raiments I wear, are my shoes. I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes if I like it. I’m going to tell you something – Clarks Shoes are the most comfortable shoes you will ever find. You look at the bottom of that there and you see “Wallabee Clarks” right there. I love Clarks. I like to be comfortable. When I was in the studios working, every time the song is finished and everybody has gone to the console room, I get my guitar case and get my duster and I am dusting off my shoes. I like to see them nice and shiny.

That’s what Coxsone noticed. I told him Carlton and the Shades. Well, at that time there was a singing group named the Shades. To be truthful I wasn’t penetrating that. But because of that fussiness about the shoes Coxsone put “Carlton and his Shoes!” I was mad about it for a while but it caused one thing where everybody wanted to know who was Carlton and the Shoes. I just resigned to it. Everybody was calling me Mr Shoes, Daddy Shoe, Uncle Shoe, Fada Shoe. That’s what they called me since then. I kind of got used to it.

Anywhere you go on Mountain View Avenue ask “Where Shoe live?” Just say “Shoe” and they’ll tell you “Jus down the round there”. If you say “Shoe” you’re going to find me. A lot of people might not know who you’re talking about if you ask for Carlton Manning but if you say “Carlton Shoe”? Everybody knows where Shoe is!

In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

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Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)


When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.

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