"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

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New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda:

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006, 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)


“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972

Live Recording: Alice Coltrane, "Africa" (Live at Carnegie Hall, 21.02.72, w/Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil McBee, Jimmy Garrison, Clifford Jarvis, Ed Blackwell)

Alice Coltrane - Live At Carnegie Hall (1972)

Personnel: Alice Coltrane: harp, p, perc Pharoah Sanders: ts, ss, fl, perc Archie Shepp: ts, ss, perc Cecil McBee: b Jimmy Garrison b Clifford Jarvis: d Ed Blackwell: d Tulsi: tamboura Kumar Kramer: harm Rec. 1972

“Welcome” John Coltrane (Kulu Sé Mama, Impulse! 1967) “Search For A New Land” Lee Morgan (Blue Note Records, 1966) plus Coltrane interviews

Personnel: John Coltrane — tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner — piano, Jimmy Garrison — double bass, Elvin Jones — drums. Recorded, June 10 & 16, 1965

"You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good." 

John Coltrane

Quoted in Brian L Knight, “Better Living Through Coltrane” published in The Vermont Review (2018)

Right from the very first piano note that marks the start of the piece: that note where it all begins, before the music expands poetically via Tyner’s piano, all those trills and flourishes – the piano, as one writer said, sounds like a stringed instrument:

"Welcome" is one of the most serene things recorded in the period. McCoy's piano sounds like a harp here. For the first time in a long time, Coltrane sounds like he's at peace.”

(“1965 was the year where everything changed. Of course, things were changing in all the years before that as well, but John Coltrane's 1965 was a watershed year …”)

Review of the “transition period” in Coltrane’s career by Mitch NZ  

and Jones’s percussive drumming that stays so still in parts, repeating the same beat like a broken-down instrument: tapping out the rhythm as if it were being kept by an open hand.

Before Coltrane’s saxophone comes in, at just before 30 seconds the three-note melody referencing “Happy Birthday To You.” And especially when Coltrane’s part descends, repeating the same note over and over there is something innocent and all-embracing about this music, as if you can hear something of John Coltrane’s heart.

The reaction to John Coltrane’s first London tour in 1961 was one of sharp contrasts, with the critics generally lost to understand his music (his show was an extended version of his hit song “My Favorite Things” - one song only for the entire performance). One critic dismissed his work, saying that his music “belonged more to the realm of higher mathematics,” while listeners at the show were in raptures, the audience was “shouting with enthusiasm … with ecstasy.” (I don’t have release/authorial information for the documentary above that provided this information, here’s part two).

This split reaction is typical for the mystique that surrounds Coltrane, something that has become even more pronounced as he takes on a secular saint role. This notion that he, his work are deeply analytical, dry, lacking in feeling. Yet, this music is all about the emotion. Central to this is his reinvention of popular songs, most notably the Rodgers/Hammerstein song from 1965 The Sound of Music musical and “Happy Birthday To You” here. Reworking pop music is a central part of jazz practice. See the way Jeanne Lee/Ran Blake transformed an excessively sentimental ballad from West Side Story into a work of mystery and wonder that I wrote about in an earlier essay on Lee, published on this site.

I imagine that doing these versions almost operated as a kind of in-joke among the musicians, while possibly having a broader import as the work of Black Americans existing within a hostile socio-cultural space. There is nothing more racialised than Julie Andrews singing of “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/silver-white winters that melt into springs …” (in a 1930s Austria re-imagined by mid-1960s Hollywood).

Coltrane’s choice of such popular foundations for his experimentation serves to make his work even more elemental; it reinforces a sense of our commonality, while stamping it with his individual voice.

Three things particularly touch me about this piece of music. First, the way it exists in a state of becoming; the capacity of jazz to evoke this state is one of the qualities I like most about the genre. The music’s power lies in the way it suggests, it invokes. There is no need for resolution.

The second aspect is the “false ending” at 3’30.” The piano and drums appear to be building towards a conclusion. Coltrane is gone, then returns (unexpectedly). This re-appearance reinforces my earlier impression of the music having an almost mystical aspect: it is as if he (Coltrane) is gone, but still present, still there. Coltrane’s absence/presence – especially when his part is the dominant and unifying element in the music – is intriguing (and possibly reflects something of Coltrane’s character: his humility is noted in the documentary above).

Here is Alice Coltrane speaking of the Interstellar Space album released in 1967, as quoted in the Brian L Knight essay where she also refers to Coltrane’s music as a kind of mathematics :

"A higher principle is involved here. Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions. I mean they weren't based entirely on music. A lot has to do with mathematics, some on rhythmic structure and the power of repetition, some on elementals. He always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music."

Such a comment might also apply to this work.

While searching for interviews with Coltrane from this period, this came up as a recommendation on Youtube. It’s from 1958 and recorded in Baltimore at “August Blume’s house.” One YouTube listener says it was published in the Jazz Review (another says it’s transcribed in the book Coltrane on Coltrane by Chris DeVito pg. 10.) It’s quite wonderful, I haven’t heard an interview like this before. Someone seems to be doing the dishes, you can hear the sound of cups and cutlery and general background noise, which makes the mood incredibly intimate. Coltrane seems relaxed too, speaking openly about his religious background, his views on religion in general and other subjects. Notice the way he speaks – the emphasis on certain words – is not so different to the way he plays the saxophone, his voice seems to have the same phrasing.

Lastly, Elvin Jones’s drumming is something to witness. Remember that this was recorded in 1965, long before this kind of approach became so familiar. It’s so submerged. If you listen to it alone it seems to have no direction, at certain points it repeats, other times there’s an increase in speed, or it slows, it becomes internal. With this in mind, the goal of the music seems to be to privilege Coltrane’s part, and for the drums to play out in the deep background and yet as I have already mentioned above Coltrane’s part is tentative, impressionistic, often absent. It disappears, to re-appear. This undermines this idea that it provides the music’s spine. Such apparent contradiction is the music’s achievement, and indeed genius, the way the performance appears to undermine musical logic in general.

All this is a universe away from Coltrane’s earlier recordings, say “My Favorite Things” (1961), “Spiritual” (1963) “Equinox”. Obviously there are points of commonality, the essence of the artist can be heard in all, but the emphasis is different. (Note that I’m purposefully avoiding categories when speaking about this work and how Coltrane’s music changed and/or developed. My preference is to keep my writing on music as spontaneous as possible. And as we know many jazz musicians resisted such categories being applied to their work, with some refusing to call their music anything at all, or preferring looser notions such as “midnight music,” as was the case for Gil Scott-Heron).

Now listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search For the New Land” released in 1966. Another favourite piece of music, one that conveys a similar mood:

Album: Search For The New Land Year: 1964 Label: Blue Note

Personnel: Grant Green - guitar Herbie Hancock - piano Billy Higgins - drums Lee Morgan - trumpet Wayne Shorter - tenor sax Reggie Workman - bass

Yet, Morgan’s composition follows the solo formula, the rising and falling, the disintegration and resolution (albeit with unkempt edges and dimensions). Coltrane and the musicians playing alongside him enact none of this. “Welcome” is granular, focussing on conveying the jazz idiom in shorter phrases, thus encouraging a listening experience of the moment.

Here’s a review of the Kulu Sé Mama album which notes the subtle reference to “Happy Birthday To You:”

“Kulu Se Mama, recorded in June and October 1965 and released in January 1967, sees Coltrane return, for the near nineteen minute title track, to the larger band format introduced on Ascension. This time the band is an eight-piece, again with Sanders on second tenor saxophone, and it is percussion rather than horn heavy. If it had been recorded in the 2000s, "Kulu Se Mama" might be labelled jam band or groove jazz. It's a vamp-driven, tuneful, African-informed piece which contains wonderfully soulful solos from Coltrane (on tenor), Tyner and bass clarinetist Donald Garrett. Anyone who enjoys the astral jazz of albums like Sanders' Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967), or pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane's Ptah, The El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970), will love "Kulu Se Mama." The two remaining tracks, "Vigil" and "Welcome," from the June sessions, are by the quartet. "Vigil" is a motor rhythm free, tenor and drums feature. "Welcome" is a lyrical and amiable affair in which at one point Coltrane references the tune to "Happy Birthday To You."

John Coltrane: John Coltrane: The Impulse! Albums - Volume Three Chris May, All About Jazz 2009

Coda:

“Twilight Song” Charlie Haden/Kenny Barron (Night and the City, Verve, 1998) plus “Sunshower” versions

Label: Verve/ Released: 1998/Genre: Jazz/Style: Easy Listening

“The third in a series of Charlie Haden duet projects for Verve in the 1990s finds the increasingly nostalgia-minded bass player working New York City's Iridium jazz club with pianist Kenny Barron. Moreover, it is entirely possible that we are getting a skewed view of the gig; according to Haden, he and his co-producer wife Ruth tilted this album heavily in the direction of romantic ballads, eliminating the bebop and avant-garde numbers that the two may have also played at the club. Be that as it may, this is still a thoughtful, intensely musical, sometimes haunting set of performances, with Barron displaying a high level of lyrical sensitivity and Haden applying his massive tone sparingly. Most of the seven tracks are fantasias on well-known standards, although one of the most eloquent performances on the disc is Barron's playing on his own "Twilight Song." If Haden deliberately set out to create a single reflective mood, he certainly succeeded, although those coming to Haden for the first time through this and most of his other '90s CDs would never suspect that this man once played such a fire-breathing role in the jazz avant-garde.”

AllMusic review, Richard S.Ginnel

What saves this music, or transforms it, elevates it above any designation as “easy listening” are the instances where Kenny Barron toughens his performance by introducing a kind of syncopated groove. This happens just after 5’30” then about a minute later and finally around 11’20”. Those brief shifts remind me of earlier pianists, earlier recordings and historical moments now passed, thus enforcing the piece’s nostalgic mood. Pianists such as Art Tatum or Duke Ellington shielding their less virtuosic selves, when they keep it still and quiet (with constant sparks of brilliance and surprise).

The way the music returns after the bass solo too is a moment of pure understated loveliness, as are the opening and closing sections.

A lot of contemporary (pop-inflected) music is said to reference Satie, perhaps wanting to connect with his music’s unadulterated melody without understanding the way he radically upturned previous tradition, blending high/low culture (let alone his eccentric, even odd theories and behaviour). John Cage cited him as a key, “indispensable” influence, as did other key members of the twentieth century US. avant-garde, while Ravel called his music “brilliant and clumsy.” See this 2015 article from the Guardian by Meurig Bowen on Satie’s later, more revolutionary music and then another article one year later marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. I thought about Satie when listening to this piece – the opening, closing - but also in the way the music encourages us to look beyond the liminal sweetness. A lot of the most popular jazz, even that by great artists – see Chet Baker – appears to be surface-only, pretty and diversionary, but here in those brief instances Barron signals other forms of Black American music and thus adds depth. Breaking the music down, making it emblematic.

The piece was recorded at the Iridium Room Jazz Club In 1996, a place that according to Wik was: “a basement room below the Merlot restaurant across from Lincoln Center; it initially booked "traditional, swinging jazz musicians of the second or third level"; Ronald Sturm, the club's manager and booker, told The New York Times his goal was to "hire people like the trumpeter Marcus Printup, or Cyrus Chestnut or Carl Allen"— the goal was to give a chance to "younger, mainstream musicians while still booking the legends."

Here’s a performance of Kenny Barron’s famous song “Sunshower” (solo piano), apologies about the amateur fan/listener video:

that became a standard covered by so many prominent jazz musicians, Ron Carter on his 1977 Piccolo LP among others and was first released on Sonny Fortune’s Awakening album in 1975. This is a beautiful performance, with Barron playing his composition, especially the final two minutes with that hard to place echoing sound. (Alto saxophone, flute, claves, shaker – Sonny Fortune piano – Kenny Barron bass – Wayne Dockery drums – Billy Hart. Recorded September 9, 1975 at Sound Ideas, New York City).

And the Kenny Barron recording in his own name from his Innocence LP three years later.

"I'm my own competition," an interview with Black Milk, following the release of FEVER

First published at Passion of the Weiss, April 5 2018

Rather than stay wedded to the early-career production style that made his name furnishing beats for Slum Village and other Detroit artists (Royce da 5’9, Danny Brown, Elzhi) and provided the soundtracks for his solo albums from the mid-2000s on, Black Milk has always preferred the more adventurous route.

His 2014 EP, Glitches in the Break, for instance, sounded like little else he’d done to up until that point: deconstructed, driven by bass-lines and disembodied vocal samples, with each track offering sharp contrast to the next. Accordingly, the impressionistic portrait of hometown Detroit, that same year’s If There’s a Hell Below…, similarly marked a new direction.

In the four years since, Black Milk has been pretty quiet, aside from his near-constant touring with his live band, Nat Turner and the group’s 2015 release, The Rebellion Sessions. After an extended period living in Texas, Black Milk is now based in Los Angeles, where he recorded his most recent LP, FEVER, along with additional sessions featuring local musicians back in Detroit.

Many of Black Milk’s core lyrical interests return on FEVER, with the MC expressing concern about the way social media dehumanizes and distorts relationships (“Laugh Now, Cry Later”), schools churning out ill-educated fools (“True Lies”), racism and police violence (“Drown”); but FEVER never dips into the raw, more experimental style of past releases, preferring instead to play with a late ’70s jazz-funk sound, which imbues the album with an air of chic refinement and definite cool.

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