Sarathy Korwar "More Arriving" (The Leaf Label) interview, published at DownBeat

A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.

“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”

The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about the impetus for bringing together poets, Indian classical musicians and rappers, and London jazz players for your new album.

The album started with MCs in India and a general fascination with the growing hip-hop scene there. What engaged me was that it was starting in working-class neighborhoods. This is interesting, because the independent music scene in India has always been largely driven by upper-class forces; if you can afford a drum-kit, if you can afford rehearsal space ... .

Here, you have a bunch of kids working on beaten-up laptops, making their own sounds, rapping in their own languages, learning production and how to spit bars. The internet has completely revolutionized how much access everyone has to music. My idea was to go meet a few MCs and see if there was a possibility to collaborate with them.

The More Arriving album cover references late-’70s/early-’80s British South Asian activism. How do you locate yourself within that history and the music inspired by it?

The album is as much about being British Asian, as an Indian living in the UK, as being an Indian from India. Going back to that Asian Underground movement in the ’90s and 2000s, Asian Dub Foundation were like the brown Rage Against The Machine. Their music had a political message, tablas and Punjabi influences. The point of the album’s artwork is a message of resistance. Although it was a really bad time for South Asians in the UK then—and things are better now—there is a kind of resurgence of the far right happening. We feel like we’re in danger of going back to those times, with all the Islamophobic comments you hear in the media.

But what did exist then was this collective strength and solidarity among the South Asian community, which I don’t think exists in the UK now. Collective identity mattered. It’s recognizing that even if we all have a different identity as South Asians, as diasporic South Asians, there is strength in numbers and collective action is important, whether it’s in music or politics, for any kind of social change.

Shabaka Hutchings appeared on Day To Day, and you’ve recorded with him since. Danalogue, his bandmate in The Comet is Coming, is on More Arriving. So, can you describe your connection to London’s contemporary jazz scene?

What’s happening in London is a lot of young musicians not feeling shackled by the idea of what jazz is—or what jazz should sound like. Getting all these influences from grime, London breakbeat, jungle, drum-and-bass, Afrobeat, all these various influences that London has because of its diverse and multicultural nature. Making music that’s club friendly with a young audience base.

It’s become cool again; everyone is talking about it. People go to clubs; they go listen to jazz bands. But it’s jazz that makes you move. It’s no longer this idea of cocktail jazz, late-night quiet listening—which is great, ’cause this is the way I always understood jazz growing up, listening to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. It was never about relaxing music. It was always about music that questioned things, music that was exciting.

In the past, you’ve mentioned Charles Lloyd as an inspiration, but in what way?

When you talk about problems in representing other cultures, one should look at Charles Lloyd as a good example of someone who’s done it right. The way he involves musicians from other traditions in his ensembles, he’s very egalitarian and respectful, and the resulting music is so unique. Another thing I really admire about him is that at this stage of his career, he’s still making amazing music, like Wayne Shorter. He’s constantly pushing his own boundaries and reinventing himself. His 2015 album, Wild Man Dance, is one of my favorite [contemporary] jazz albums.

He’s appeared with all the greats, but remains curious about music. I also love his playing; he can go from a straightahead jazz player to being so free with his playing and techniques as a multi-instrumentalist. But I think I admire him most as a music director, his collaborations and his way of putting bands together. It’s his vision that speaks to me.

How do you transfer this to work with your group, UPAJ Collective?

For me, it’s about collaborating with people and making sure that everyone is invested, everyone is being creatively inspired. I remember this quote [saying,] that musicians seek to create utopias or worlds they’d like to see within their own band. I’m trying to build this idea that human beings can interact on a very equal level within a band. It’s almost an anarchic sensibility of no pre-existing power structures; questioning all the power structures, like lead soloist/accompanist.

This is why I love playing in circles. Not a lot has been written about how you play on stage, the power dynamics, but it’s so important, the way we are positioned. Playing in a circle brings you back to the idea of communal music making, collaborative music making, facing other musicians while you are playing.

These are the things I value in music. DB

To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit,
yo... now

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

Such splitting allows for a change in delivery (the second verse is more fluid, especially when Nas opens up about his lyricism, in the lines above and when he compares himself to a “smooth criminal”).

This doubling is particularly interesting, and found elsewhere in hip-hop lyricism. Other genres use personae and multiple perspectives, but in hip-hop there’s often a meta aspect linked to the MC drawing attention to the act of writing itself. Nas puts forward a persona commenting on others at the start, to return to this writing of the character at the end: “I lay puzzles as I backtrack to earlier times/Nothing’s equivalent to a New York state of mind.”

References to writing exist in other genres: writing letters to former lovers, or receiving letters, for example, but hip-hop adds another dimension. Writing itself is a core theme, linked to ideas of reputation/status (killing off the competition etc) and survival. I write therefore I am.

None of this is abstract, at least not with my preferred MCs who allow for depth to come through not only on an intellectual level - via references, as Nas does here name-checking “Scarface” the film character, the rapper maybe - and making space for an emotional charge. You sense it here, Nas’s lyricism is not an exercise, a chance to show off, it’s an extension of his self and how he feels. Key to this is the intimate nature of hip-hop; the fact that rap is a spoken art, all the while playing with notions of authenticity and truth.

I understand the emphasis on analysing the line-by-line brilliance that consumes so many fans and critics alike. It makes sense, as a measure of the MC’s skill, as a way of consolidating community bonds. See here the Genius breakdown of “N.Y. State of Mind”, and impressive commentary on the following lines:

Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep—'cause sleep is the cousin of death

Here’s the take of one commentator:

“A truly classic rap line evoking ghetto drug dealers' “one eye open” sense of paranoia; perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e., “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)

This line’s 1st degree meaning is evident: sleep is a deathlike, inert state of consciousness

At the 2nd degree, “sleeping” is slang for being inattentive or negligent; a drug dealer who is robbed for lack of vigilance is said to be “caught sleeping”

Nas never “sleeps” – i.e., he’s never “caught sleeping” – because being an easy target could lead him to getting shot to death.

And, to top it all off, what’s New York City’s nickname?”

And another: “Sleep is the cousin of death” is also a Congolese proverb. While yet one more writer notes the parallel with one of the most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

(Nas, in an accompanying video for the Genius transcription says that the lines come from before he was born, from Africa).


II.

The New York nature of the track is not confined to the rhymes; it’s reflected in the title, of course, taken from a Billy Joel song from 1977, here covered by Barbra Streisand:

And music, most famously in the “false start” that opens the track. In this video DJ Premier describes the recording process – “20 people” in the booth alongside Nas, asking him to pass the Henny and weed, and explains how the famous “false” start came about …

This awkward opening reflects Nas’s youth/shyness (DJ Premier refers to the way Nas used to hide his face when recording a verse). It also enacts a key aspect of his craft as MC, the way he draws attention to his rhymes as process, as if he is bringing his verses into being as he raps them. Countless MCs boast about their greatness, Nas does this too here, but what is distinctive is the way he allows for what seems to be a spontaneous element, as if he’s making it up then and there – just like a freestyle. I’ve written about this before. It’s something distinctive about his rhymes, the way they have an energy to them, a liveliness.

And yet, as DJ Premier explains this wasn’t made up, it was the real thing, Nas was freestyling and responding to a  friend. Then recorded the verse in one take. That said, listening to it now it seems to convey a (fake) modesty. He raps: “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo …” to kick into one of the most extraordinary verses ever recorded, after the steadying “now …”

All this reflects something else that’s very New York, the freestyle culture kept alive via radio shows. (It’s more than likely the same culture existed elsewhere at the same time, but is less known to me). See the messy to-and-fro set-up, where the MCs banter along with the host, name-checking people who have supported them past and present, such as this very long intro on a 1993 Nas freestyle on the Stretch & Bobbito show, pre-Illmatic:

Keeping it loose like this does two things: it reinforces the fact that rap/hip-hop is part of an oral tradition, of people shooting the breeze playing with language in an improvised way, while also being a crucial part of the performance, allowing the audience to be wowed by the genius of the rhymes that come after it. It’s as if the MC is so cool, so good that they don’t need the formality of a worked-out introduction, it comes so easily to them – their speaking poetry of this quality and magnitude, it’s as natural for them as breathing.  

It also enacts a consciousness where hip-hop draws on Black American musical/cultural traditions, where improvisation is a key element, if not the most essential element – the sign that a musician is blessed, as heard in jazz and other forms of spoken-word performance from the 60s and 70s.  

The DJ Premier beat also has a disassembling aspect, in contrast to the other more melodic beats on Illmatic (see Pete Rock’s emphasis on certain words in “The World is Yours”, something that is quintessentially Motown, or the formal song-based structure of the Large Professor instrumentals).

“N.Y. State of Mind” starts on a single drum sound, which Nas then repeats in the “yeah,” but what makes this very New York is the high-pitched single note repeated like a bell (cf: Easy Mo Bee). This interest in emphasis individual notes (rather than melodies) is one reason why hip-hop music-making is so radical (though this too could be part of the jazz inheritance).

The piano comes in, again as a single note to supplement; on second hearing, it sounds like two piano lines, or the three-note keyboard line and piano. The skill of Nas’s rhymes is the way he maintains the energy; you could listen to his rhymes on that basis alone, the rhythm of them, slowing becoming more groove-like at two points, as previously mentioned. His control is impressive.

The three-note melody and perhaps more comes from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain” from his 1978 Double Exposure album:

(Other samples mentioned on the Genius site are “Live at the Barbeque” Main Source; “Mahogany” Eric B & Rakim; “N.T.” Kool & The Gang and “Flight Time” Donald Byrd).

Interestingly the original Joe Chambers piece has a similar mood the the instrumental, of music being in formation, in development; it has a reflective, unformed quality to it, albeit grounded by the low notes (the beginning of both pieces of music especially remind me of the other).

Here’s the full album, Double Exposure, which was recorded in 1977 in New York; with Chambers on “p, e-p, dr, perc” and Larry Young on “og, syn.” As one of the commenters says, enthusiastically: “One of the very few duo albums in jazz using mainly the piano / organ format!! Probably the only one. Hats off to drummer Joe Chambers who shows his skills on the piano here. Joining with space brother Larry, this tops everything. A deep spiritual gem from the great Muse label!!!”

Have a look at this video where DJ Premier speaks more about the Joe Chambers sample and how he used it:

To close, a live performance of “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas in formal attire/sunglasses at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and DJ from 2018 (with Korean subtitles):

 *(From above: T: “Weak answer” .. HHL: “Elaborate then. Not one line in this song is specific to the 1990s/T: “Still a very weak answer. You talk to me about something you engineered out of bizarre ideas, I talk to you about THE MUSIC.

HHL: Lmao I'm basing my argument off of the lyrics, it's not just my opinion. Nas was born in 1973, so he's writing a lot about his early experiences of life in Queensbridge. Crime in New York (a primary focus of the song) didn't start in the 90s, it was something that he grew up with (hence "the dungeons of rap"). Violent crime in NYC began to skyrocket in the 70s during white flight and continued into the 80s during the crack epidemic. He makes references to Scarface (1983), The Message by Grandmaster Flash (1982), Al Capone (early-mid 1900s), etc. Even the sampled beat in the song is a jazz record from 1977.

T replies: “Blah blah blah blah ...... no.”) For those who’d prefer a “90s-era fan mash-up video,” go here.

New Young Journalists Development Program - start date May, 2019

This is a call for young writers, aged 17-22, interested in developing core writing/journalism skills who want to write on hip-hop/music and/or other subjects. Women especially encouraged to apply. Intended for a small group of two, or three people.

This program is designed for people who do not have access to such training at school or in their communities; people who might be interested in becoming journalists, but feel that it is closed to them for whatever reason. It is aimed for people who are not represented in mainstream media spaces, because of background/place of residence, who want to write about stories relating to their communities, thereby altering the current media bias towards white, middle-class voices.

The program could be a formal training program, or informal mentoring arrangement depending on the need and interest of the trainees. No previous experience or publications required - but preference will be given to applicants with no other opportunity for media/journalism training of this kind and members of under-represented groups.

If interested, or you have questions: contact me with a brief introduction to yourself and what you’d like to achieve at madeleinebyrne.writer@gmail.com Proposed program start date: May, 2019


What’s on offer ….

1. Introduction to and mastery of core skills: how to contact talent/subjects, set up and conduct an interview; how to write an effective story appropriate for the target audience; how to pitch a story to an editor, how to follow up and continue building the relationship with the editor and publication

** Note that this is a journalism – not personal creative writing/fiction – training program.

The goal is to equip new journalists with the skills that could be applied to any subject and lead to publication (in mainstream/alternative media outlets/a personal site).

To be a good journalist you don’t need to be a “good writer.” All you need is commitment and determination, good people skills, curiosity, a desire to know why or how something has happened, or keeps happening, a desire to be balanced and fair and report the truth as you see it. Many of the best journalists started young – as teenagers – and learned on the job. This program will aim to reproduce this kind of training.

If the applicants don’t feel confident about their English writing “level,” we can work with this, maybe make it less about articles and more transcription of interviews, similar to an oral history. We can talk about it. My goal here is not to produce a certain kind of journalism, but have the trainee journalist stay true to their voice and people they’re speaking with: this is what being a good journalist is all about. You are the vessel for the story, not the story itself.

2. Mentoring on an individual basis, plus references for future employment in the field or more generally

3. Access to editors and artists within the hip-hop space in the US/UK and other areas (i.e. non-music related subjects if the writers would prefer this). Help making contact with both, including introductions. I will also promote the work on my site and social media (Twitter/Facebook)

4. Advice on which sites/publications are open to new writers and how the journalists might position themselves within the market, for want of a better word. Advice on how to set up a website, if of interest, or write a long-term project (I’m currently writing a book-length manuscript)

5. Guaranteed publication, note that this might be unpaid or paid very little

6. Contact with my students in Paris of the same age, interests and backgrounds/or not (I teach writing skills/communication at a university here). Contact with organisations linked to Africa and The Caribbean in Paris and people from these regions, if interest: primarily West Africa and North Africa (Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria). Contact with other young writers/journalists in the United States of a similar background/or not.

How it will work …

- If a formal program: regular contact (weekly or every two weeks depending on availability) focussing on core skills, with exercises, which will reduce over time, though I will be available for any questions or issues that might arise on an indefinite basis and will continue to support the writers and their work.

Why do this?

For a mix of personal and political reasons. For the personal: I started writing on Black American music – jazz, Soul/R&B, hip-hop – for my site (madeleinebyrne.com) a few years ago, after a long time of not writing, just eking out a kind of “survival mode” raising a now 12 year-old son largely on my own. This writing was my release and also a return to a professional identity (in Australia I worked in print, radio and TV and was an activist focussing on immigration detention and before this private prisons) that I thought I had lost. It was as if I was turning a full circle, returning to my first professional job as a music writer as a teenager in Melbourne. More recently I’ve found an audience and a measure of success primarily in the US, but elsewhere too, I feel grateful for this, so this is my way of giving something back.

It’s also something that I can do and I’ve done it twice before:

- with a group of university students in Melbourne when I helped establish the country’s first citizen-led inquiry into immigration detention

- as editor at Hip Hop Forum digital magazine where I set up a new writers program for people in Detroit, Philadelphia, Delaware etc. One of those writers ended up contributing to a major national US hip-hop site.

In Australia activists talk about “paying the rent” to First Nations people, in a literal and metaphorical sense. I write on Black American music, have benefited from it personally/professionally, been welcomed and supported by those whose culture I write on: this is my way of paying the rent (or giving something back, if you prefer).

"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.”  

    

Madeleine Byrne: The promo material says John Yancey is all about Los Angeles, whereas Home was about Detroit. For me when listening to the record what came through were ideas about relationships, love and lust in songs like “Tokyo” and “Rose Gold.” What do you think about that comment?

Illa J: Well, I mean it wasn’t specifically about Los Angeles, but the vibe was, musically it was more Californian but as far as the subject matter the album is more personal relationships over the past ten years, not a specific time; all the experiences I’ve been through. I’m talking about a little bit of everything.

MB: You’ve got a real talent for evoking matters of the human heart, those songs I mentioned before stood out for me (“Rose Gold” and “Tokyo”). Could you choose one and explain what you were aiming for?    

Illa J: “Tokyo,” for example, is a straight-forward R&B song. The music comes first, it’s whatever the vibe is (I write to that), so for “Tokyo” as soon as I heard the beat it was R&B for me; the melody comes first, then I bring the words in, even when I’m rapping, you know rhythmically. I’m a singer, so melody comes first, but in terms of the subject matter, the music tells you. But we set ourselves up for those situations, ‘cause I pick beats that sound (a certain way). The subject matter just comes, the music brings it out.

MB: Let’s talk about “12 AM”  because the song has got a really different mood.

Illa J: Technically that song started the album, it was the first track we did. The one difference is that was the only song that was recorded in Detroit. Every other song was recorded in LA. That was the only one I recorded over the beat somewhere else, not in the studio – every other song was recorded in the studio. You definitely hear a different vibe on it because I was in Detroit the time I recorded that song.

MB: How is that vibe in Detroit different?

Illa J: A range of music inspires you differently … It’s hard to explain, but I write different things when I’m in Detroit versus when I’m in LA. It’s a different feeling I have, more “real life style”, it’s almost like trying to get out if I’m in Detroit, even if I’m good there’s a certain kind of energy that it brings out in me.

MB: What is it about that sound in Detroit, though, obviously your brother (J Dilla) is an important part of it, but how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know much about Detroit’s music scene?

Illa J: Honestly, if you go back and study Motown, you’ll understand it all. The drums are heavier in the Motown stuff, they have like two drummers drumming at the same time. Don’t get it twisted it’s pop/Soul, pop melodies but if you listen to the full sound of it, it’s pop but still soulful, it has a certain feeling, you know what I mean? It’s nothing technical musically, you could have an electronic beat if you do the right thing to it and it could feel soulful, it’s all about your individuality and what you put into the music.

It’s just that Motown musical feeling, and definitely that 9-5 grind that we grew up around is ingrained in us as well, but I think it’s one of those things you absorb the kind of environment that’s around you. If you listen to Snoop and all of them, one thing I find in Cali – not all of them – but a lot of Cali artists have got a laid-back kind of vibe in their songs. It makes sense. They got palm trees to look at every day, the sound might be similar to Detroit the funk of it, but it sounds more laid-back; ours is more gritty, that’s what it is. We got snow and all that stuff. A lot of these beats are made in winter ‘cause you don’t want to be outside (laughs).

MB: I understand that the production is sample-based, did you use any live instrumentation on any of the tracks?

Illa J: All the production is done by Calvin Valentine, though on the next album I’m going to do the production; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was younger, but you know my brother had just passed when I started, and it was so much of a comparison thing. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t produced my albums, but at the same time I like working with other producers ‘cause on my solo albums I can then focus on my song-writing and my vocals. Calvin Valentine did all the music; he’s a talented producer and solo artist as well. It’s all sample-based, even though some tracks don’t sound like it. Calvin plays around with it, he plays on top of it and builds on it.

MB: Thanks for mentioning Motown before because you can see it’s a big influence. One of your tracks (“Rose Gold”) includes a reference to Smokey Robinson, you had a song called “Sam Cook” – no e at the end -  on your last record, Home. Your dad is extremely important too in terms of this. As far as I understand it, he wrote The Spinners’ song “It’s a Shame” is that correct?

Illa J: Yeah, yeah, he ghost-wrote that song. I mean it’ s the same thing today, you have songwriters who write songs, but they pay them to not give them the credit, they pay them upfront because they don’t want to give them the royalties from it, or whatever. My dad sold that song to The Spinners.

MB: I saw in an interview that you’d sing with him when you were growing up and here’s a quote: “My dad would wake us up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder.” Could you talk some more about your dad and how he has inspired you in terms of your music?

Illa J: He’s the musical foundations. Don’t get me wrong both my mom and dad are musical, my mom sings too, but my dad is the one; there wouldn’t be a J Dilla if it wasn’t for my dad. He was a songwriter, he played piano – both his parents played piano. His group went on the road with The Harlem Globetrotters way, way back in the day. He was making moves back then. I don’t know how to put it but basically everything me and my brother have done is inspired by my dad, because he never had a chance to have solo success. Motown wanted to sign my dad but he didn’t want to take the deal from Motown. He knew all the people there. They wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to sign with them for whatever reason.

MB: Can you recall any conversations with your dad when you’d talk about music, something you might remember to today?

Illa J: I mean, we talked about music a lot of times, it’d be hard to break it down to one conversation, but it was just one of those things; my dad had it, James had it, not so much conversations but schooling us to jazz. I started off with jazz because of my dad, I listened to a lot of vocalists growing up, the obvious ones – Stevie Wonder all of that stuff, cause if you’re growing up in Detroit you’re going to hear all of that – as far as our household I heard a lot of a cappella jazz, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six of Paris. They were back in the day, even before Manhattan Transfer before anyone even knew who Manhattan Transfer was, they did a whole album with Quincy Jones (Les Double Six – Rencontrent Quincy Jones, Columbia, 1960)

putting words to it in French. One of the dopest a cappella jazz groups ever. My dad put me up on them, you should check them out. I grew up with a lot of a cappella jazz – just jazz period, more than any other music I learnt jazz first.

(Here’s an announcement from the Stones Throw website marking the event of Beverly Dewitt Yancey’s death in 2012. In a later email Illa J passed on this information about his father: “Beverly Dewitt Yancey. Born West Virginia, October 8th, 1932, played music all his life, both his parents played piano for silent movies. He had a band called "The Ivies." They put a record with an A and B side, “C’mon" & "Sunshine." Motown wanted to sign his group the Ivies.”) 

MB: I saw that you had experience singing in church, but it sounds like you had more of a jazz education than church/gospel ….

Illa J: No, no, no all of it at the same time; all of it at the same time, that was the household, we went to church on Sunday, I was in the church choir. It was a full musical background. Jazz was the household, I was in choir as well, I got a lot of training from that. I didn’t realise till later that was a lot of good training: rehearsals, I’d go to my mom and dad’s rehearsals and Sunday choir. Not judging but it wasn’t like Catholic church where it’s just (breaks into falsetto trilling singing) it was the real thing, it was soul like real music. That was good training everything I would end up doing later, not until five or six years ago I really started to master my voice, working with my vocal coach.

I was always a singer first, I feel like people are like oh so you’re a singer now, no I’ve always been a singer. I just could rap, rapping was always something I could do I’m musical, I grew up writing poetry, so writing was never anything, but it was always singing for me.

MB: I don’t want to avoid speaking about your mom, how would you describe her influence on your music?                      

Illa J: Musically my mom was a singer, so she’d tell me different singers to listen to, to practice, but like as I say my dad was the musical foundations. I understand they both did music, again my mom sings too, but my dad was the musical inspiration for everybody. He was the musical master. He even got her more into jazz, ‘cause he was helping her as a singer. He heard her voice and wanted to work with her. My dad was the man, musically; on the music thing, he was the one.

Obviously, they made us, but it is what it is, my dad is the man. People don’t know that, they never mention my dad like that, like you can’t talk about J Dilla without my dad. No, he’s the one (laughs). Of course, I say this to mom, show love to my mom, but really my dad is the one, I’m a spitting image of him. I would not be able to do anything musically without him. I’m most conscious of him because he is more of a song-writer, you know melody side, music period – the jazz chords, the rhythms, I took all of that and the singing stuff ‘cause I was a singer like when my dad was in a group.

They had an a cappella jazz group that’d record at our house. This happened even before I was born, so my brother would play drums for them when they were singing, but I was singing, learning my notes, taking the harmonies.

MB: What ages are you talking about here?

Illa J: All my life, as far as I can remember, before I could talk (laughs) music was around. It was the main driver: it was like brush my teeth, watch TV, music. It was always a big part of our lives.

MB: One of the songs “Sunday” on the new album, the harmonies in that song are fantastic. It’s quite different to the other songs, what’s the story behind it?

Illa J: Well, it’s technically an interlude, but we didn’t want to call it an interlude, no it’s just a shorter track. Each track touches on personal stuff and stuff with my brother, a lot of it is relationships based but also how your life affects your relationships. “Sunday” is everything coming together near the end, I went through all these things, but I’m still here. All those things weren’t in vain, I learned from it, how to get myself back up and keep going. Literally “Sunday” is like church, it ends almost like a gospel song, that song was like all the stuff I’ve been through the album and you get to that song and it’s like Sunday, literally (laughs).

MB: On Twitter you call yourself: “Singer, rapper, songwriter, alien” Frank Nitt, of course had a song on the first Yancey Boys album called “Alien Family” where he’s talking about how Jay Dee really loved aliens and how “the Jackson Five from Mars” could be a description of your family, what is it with these alien references?

Illa J: To me, it makes sense, Frank used to call my brother alien, honestly for me it has nothing to do with that, my dad’s favourite channel with the Sci-Fi channel so we grew up with that, Science fiction movies, scary movies and all that stuff. I’ve always been into extra-terrestrial (stuff) … space, aliens all that type of stuff. In a personal way, I always felt, ah different (laughs) I’ve never fitted in, even around my people, I still have my weirdness, I always felt like I never fitted in fully. I feel like an alien in that way, I actually have a tattoo too on my left arm, it’s an alien (laughs). I just got it this year.

MB: And you also got a tattoo of 1932, the year your dad was born, right?

Illa J: Yeah, but it’s tied to both themes: it’s the year my dad was born and the age my brother died. I was 19, he was 32.

 

MB: The new record is quite international – you’ve got references to Ukraine, Japan, Paris, London and other places – Home your previous album was apparently about finding your own voice, about going home, “a spiritual reference about the journey of finding my own voice” is the way you put it. Now Detroit is still important to you, I’d expect, even though you’re based in LA. Do you go back there often?

Illa J: No (laughs), but it’s still important. I love it, it’s my home. I know that’s where I became who I am today, it started there. It will always be home base no matter what, I just don’t see myself living there at least not right now.

MB: The video for “Home” was filmed I think at your actual childhood home, is that right?

Illa J: Yeah, it’s the very first home, it’s the house I literally grew up in, and the house I’m singing in front of was when I was a baby, I was only a baby there. The first house in the video, the very first house they show I lived there a lot of years, a lot of my growing up – my teenage years – were there.

MB: There’s another song I’d like to speak about from that record, “Seven Mile,” it’s an interesting contrast; “Home” is like a rousing, stirring song, “Seven Mile” is completely different, much harder but funkier too in a way. Could you talk about how the songs work together?

Illa J: For me that album has got a dirty soul type of vibe to it, Home wasn’t just the title it was more of a vibe, by the end of the recording it came through as a common theme, so it didn’t make sense to call it “7 Mile.”

One of my favourite things is titling songs with a word that’s not used in the song. Sometimes a title just describes the vibe of the song. “7 Mile” – the street Seven Mile in Detroit is one of the crazy streets to drive on, the street is really messed up, really bumpy; that was the purpose of the video driving down, it’s more about the vibe and the feeling.

It’s almost like they’re taking the drive, it’s a tough road and they’re going get through. “Home” is more a spiritual realisation, like I went through all that stuff and I’m finally home, it’s about making it home. I made it, back home, it was kind of real, cause even though I was then technically still living in Montreal, I had to come out here, I had some shows in California, so that’s how I was able to record it.

By the time the album came out, I was moving back home, so it was really spiritual; it was for real, home. Now it’s full circle with John Yancey because it’s the first album in a while that has my last name in it, Yancey in the title, since Yancey Boys and it’s ten years later I put out this album, John Yancey.

It’s full circle, it’s almost where I wanted it to go originally, there’s more singing on this album, I’m still rapping, but there’s more singing. The singing is very present. That’s what I want people to see, oh yeah, he’s a singer, for the longest time people were looking at me like a rapper, and I’m like no I’m not a rapper.

MB: You’ve always been a singer, where does this feeling come from of thinking that people see you as a rapper first?

Illa J: With The Yancey Boys album … people still don’t get it, it’s like once you rap, automatically you’re a rapper. The only way to get around that is to not rap, that’s what worked on Home. I rap less, then they have to pay attention to my singing, I don’t know what it is. I listen to music a lot and I’ve been doing it for years, the average listener they’re not listening like that, you have to do so much more for them to get an understanding of it.

Even with this album, it’s like (people still call it) a hip-hop album, but it’s not. It’s a weird type of vibe, it’s a total hip-hop vibe, but if you really listen to it it’s not an underground hip-hop album at all (laughs), but I will still be put in that category. They’ll call it an underground rap album, and I’m like, no it’s not, go back and listen to it. It’s damn near a soul/R&B album with rapping on it, if you really listen to it, it’s not an underground rap album. I want to get out of that category, what is underground rap? What is conscious rap?

I make music, that’s it. I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, R&B, ‘cause there’s good music everywhere. There’s wack music everywhere, there’s wack music in underground rap, people are like I’m from the underground, so they feel like they’re better. No, there is great pop music, people get it twisted like oh he’s making pop music, he’s selling out, it’s like no, I’m making music for everybody. You’re actually limiting yourself if you go in a specific genre. It’s not like yeah, I’m hip-hop, I make music.

MB: One thing that’s interesting about this is that everybody goes on about how the rap in Detroit is hard, with the techno-influence etc but Slum Village which you were a part of, touring and recording with in 2012-2013, was all about melody and changing the lyrical content, your brother J Dilla had heaps of tracks about relationships, about lusting after women, you know …

Illa J: Exactly.

MB: So, what you’re describing is kind of surprising as in Detroit there’s a long tradition of singers teaming up with rappers.

Illa J: Thank you, yes. If anything, that is our history: Detroit musical history is pop music, pop Soul music is what it is, it’s weird it’s got to the point where it’s only this underground rap thing, ‘cause it was different late 90s/early 2000s. Even some mainstream artists wanted to be called underground cause it was a different thing then, now it’s just like a turn-off when it’s underground cause it’s going to be overly conscious.

When there’s a song with rapping it’s like they just wanted to hear themselves rap and I’m like where’s the song? I can’t see it. Every song on my album has a specific topic. Every single song is very specific, “BTW” is about me travelling and doing music and trying to have a relationship, “Enjoy the Ride” is about someone going through some shit but still enjoying the ride, “Tokyo” is what it is … Everything has a specific topic. You won’t be confused, I guarantee it, you won’t be like what’s this song about. I worked very hard on my writing to get away from that, in the rap world it’s easy to stray away from the topic and you end up rapping for two minutes about … what? (laughs)

MB: Bringing it back to Slum Village, there’s a connection with what you’re doing now I think in terms of their music, the focus on melody, talking about relationships. What do you think about that idea?

Illa J: I definitely represent their vibe, it is what it is, T3 is my brother and Young RJ is my brother. I was very influenced by them ‘cause that was my introduction to a lot of that type of music ‘cause you know I was telling you about my dad, I was listening to whatever music my dad was. When we were younger we didn’t have access to explicit content (laughs) you had to get some permission, or sneak out and buy a CD to get some explicit content, I had no idea what else was out there outside what my parents were playing on the radio, so all I heard was Stevie Wonder and all that stuff and jazz and things like that until I was seven, or eight or nine and could sneak out and grab my brother’s cassettes and all of his quote, unquote explicit music, all that rap stuff that was out at that time.

Slum was my introduction to that type of music, they have influenced me their whole style, if you listen to my records you definitely are going to hear the influence of Slum Village – it is what it is, no Slum Village no me (laughs). It’s all the same story, I can’t tell my story without saying something about Slum, even in my career, they play a big part.

I was working with them for three years, I was only on that album in 2013, but I was actually technically working with them for longer. We did two straight mixtapes, Dirty Songs 1 & 2, two full complete projects but they were released as mixtapes and was touring with them the same time. Evolution in 2013 was the only album, even though I was working with them the two previous years. A lot of things I learnt from them was in the studio, that’s where I learnt a lot of things from Slum. I really got way better as a recording artist.

MB: To close let’s bring it back to your album, John Yancey, there are two strong references to your brother on it: the songs “James Said” and “32”.

Illa J: “James Said” basically, cause on the hook I sing, “like one won’t do” ‘cause he had a song, “Won’t do” on The Shining album. It was me writing my verse, building on that – again it represents how it was when I was younger and I was trying to be my bro in a way, you know what I mean? It’s almost me trying to take him on but at the same time I’m talking about me and what I went through, on the hook you can see it’s like the younger me, learning, going through stuff.

“32” is the most direct, in that song I’m actually talking to James, literally talking to James. “James said” is more a reference to my brother, “32” is me talking straight to my brother and when it comes on you can hear his voice, that’s his voicemail. (You can hear it at the end of track, Sunday) That’s his actual outgoing message, then you hear him talking under my singing when the song starts, you hear me singing, “The things we go through are …” (sings) The voice under that talking is him, that’s James talking.

MB: It’s very powerful, I thought it was his voice.  

Illa J: The point of that song is that I’m 32 years-old and he died when he was 32 years-old and that’s trippy as hell, I’m 32 now, that’s crazy and talk about the whole 1932 thing as well in the verse. The point of that song is that I’ve never had a conversation with my brother as a grown man …

(and with that the line cuts).      

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.

None of his music is chilled-out, relaxing lo-fi in the slightest thankfully, it’s music with its own energy and personality. Within its parameters it is bold and intense. And yet on first impression, Godfather Don’s music is so unassuming, especially when you remember that it came out of that era of uber-producers, staking out territory and reinventing the form. It is anti-epic, anti-saga. Some of these beats might have been included in my writing on hip-hop quiet if I had been listening to them at that time.

Narrowing this selection down to six was difficult; six is my self-imposed limit now and into the future (I’m not a great believer in all-encompassing, everything-ever-recorded-by-one-particular-artist lists that proliferate in music journalism, I find them tiring). Be aware, though that there are many other Godfather Don instrumentals I wanted to add to this group, I hope that if you like these beats you will be inspired to go looking for more online.

Other decisions were made too, whether or not to include his humour (see the apparently linked beats following a theme, “My Driver’s Downstairs,” “Call Me A Cab”) or the beats that were retro-80s (“Just Mix it Yourself” or “Video Taping,” say) or to focus in on the work he did with Kool Keith

but decided against all of these ideas. Best to keep it direct and focussed, simple even, like the music itself.

“Born Rodney Chapman, Godfather Don is a Producer and emcee from Bushwick, Flatbush, New York.

Godfather Don first appeared in 1991 with Hazardous, released on the Select Records. The album established the Godfather as an MC influenced by the blatant, hard-hitting style of Chuck D. A few years later, the Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC’s' The Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group’s standout, Kool Keith. He has also provided remix work for likes of Nas and House Of Pain as one half of The Groove Merchantz, whom he shared production/remixing duties with Vince “The Mighty V.I.C.” Padilla. Aside from his Hip Hop based repertoire, Godfather Don is also a professional saxophone player, and regularly plays improvised Jazz music with his band The Open Mind.”

From Genius listing on Godfather Don 

Not sure about the reference to Chuck D, which is repeated on Godfather Don’s Wikipedia page; for me the approach of the two MCs, style and content, are oceans apart. Okay some Godfather Don tracks - see this 1992 “Pull da Trigga & Step” - is Chuck D-esque, maybe, but the parallel seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

 “The Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC'sThe Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group's standout, Kool Keith. The Cenobites EP was issued on Fondle 'Em Records, which was started by New York b-boy, DJ, and man about town Bobbito Garcia. The material on the EP had originally been recorded as gags or promos for Garcia's underground hip-hop radio show on New York's WKCR. The Cenobites EP was then reissued by Fondle 'Em as a full-length LP. Throughout the 1990s, Godfather Don continued to work as a producer, working on tracks from Kool Keith, Hostyle, and Ayatollah, among others. In 1999, he released his second album, Diabolique, on which his flow was very similar to the bludgeoning raps of his 1991 debut. The album included cameo appearances from Kool Keith and Sir Menelik, and appeared on the Hydra Entertainment imprint, for which Godfather Don continued to record, releasing several 12" singles and Instrumental hip hop albums.

In the 2000s, Don was known for his work with Screwball, a Queensbridge hip hop group, producing much of their 3 albums.

In 2007, Don resurfaced with 'The Slave Of New York E.P.': an EP of previously-unreleased archive material in association with hip-hop website Diggers With Gratitude who tracked him down and worked on putting this project out. 150 copies of this six track vinyl E.P. were released, with the first 45 copies having signed sleeves. The material used was recorded before and during his time with Hydra, with the title track coming directly from a cassette that Don had given to Bobbito to play on WKCR. Due to the resurge in interest, Don was then asked to release a CD compilation of material by another label, titled The Nineties Sessions, out now.

On May 21, 2011 Don dropped another EP of previously unreleased material titled "The Reformation Circa. 1999" a collaborative effort between Mic-el The Don, (who featured on tracks from the "Diabolique" album) and Godfather Don. The EP was recorded sometime in the late 1990s, it is one of Godfather Don's last full bodies of work in the hip-hop genre before he moved on to a career in Jazz music.”

Wikis, Godfather Don

1. “Styles By the Gram” 12”(Properties of Steel, Hydra Beats, 1996) plus “Slave to New York” (The Slave of New York, Diggers with Gratitude re-issue 2007)

To start with what may be my favourite Godfather Don beat, though as you’ll see I had trouble narrowing it down to six here – it kept getting extended so the self-imposed limit means nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all, or very little let’s say. Here’s the track with the rhymes.

It could be said that this beat sounds like many other instrumentals from that era and location. There’s nothing so radical or surprising about it, but the sound of the recording is superb and I love the way the music comes back with a minuscule inversion after the moment of the silence; there’s something very smooth about the way Godfather Don manipulates these (familiar) details.

Added to this the layered horns and sound effects, billowing and echoing all around it. WhoSampled states that the three-track Godfather Don release samples the Pete Rock/CL Smooth instrumental “It’s on You” (The Main Ingredient, Electra, 1994).

The site also claims that the Pete Rock track sample comes in at “0:00 (and throughout)” on the Godfather Don Properties of Steel release, not sure how that works. It’s true that from my online search it seems Godfather Don had some favourite samples that he returned to, but it’s unlikely he repeated just one sample throughout the entire release. Here it is with other tracks on this 2010 reissue, dubbed with a very cute retro promo styling, the “definitive Godfather Don singles collection” on its cover sticker. It has one of his better-known tracks “World Premiere” on it.

Here’s the full The Slave of New York ep.

2. “Burn” (Diabolique &/or 12”, Hydra Entertainment, 1998 - release info unclear if either includes instrumental version)

“1997. Produced by Godfather Don” – info below the video, that’s it.

What’s interesting about this instrumental is the contrast already mentioned above between the two kinds of sounds; the nervy, speedy insistent drums/percussion that skip along and sheer weight and heaviness of the other sounds. I really like the way Godfather Don allows for this contrast in his music between the lightness of drums (in itself kind of surprising, remember how many/most instrumentals from this time made the drums super-imposing and dominant, indeed it’s seem to be a characteristic of the era’s signature sound, at least on the East Coast) and then the other darker elements.

Apparently this instrumental includes a sample from Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?” - this is something else I noticed about Godfather Don the repeated sampling of his peers, or almost peers amid the more predictable 70s picks:

If true, and it may not be, it adds another - funny - dimension to Godfather Don’s title. Remember Biggie’s lines: “I burn baby burn like Disco Inferno/Burn slow like blunts with yayo/Peel more skins than Idaho potato …”

3. “Stuck Off – The Realness” (Hydra Entertainment. 1995)

Another perfect piece of music for me, I would have definitely been a good fit for my essay on hip-hop quiet if I had heard it back then. The beat samples Mobb Deep/Havoc’s “Shook Ones II” instrumental (1995):

and … Big Daddy Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” feat. Biz Markie (1988) - apparently - this song came up a few times in the WhoSampled information on the Godfather Don beats included there:

You can’t get more divergent sources of inspiration than the two above (if it is accurate) - splicing the two up, putting them alongside each other reflects a sense of humour not always it seems associated with Godfather Don’s musical output.

Compare the Godfather Don/Havoc beats to get a sense of the personal style of both producers. The Havoc beat is built from a small number of sonic elements, as is the Godfather Don, but has a dramatic sense of building towards something, developing and transforming as if it were a fragment from a movie soundtrack; some moment of drama, close to the cliff’s descent where the sea is swirling ominously below. The sounds are sharp, expertly judged in terms of the choice and the execution.

In contrast, the Godfather Don is shockingly simple, apparently undeveloped. The sounds are muffled, but carry within this a warmth and resonance – as if this is the principal goal of the music. A lot of music writers use the term “minimalist” when referring to hip-hop, without exploring what it might mean outside of being simple, or unadorned. Minimalism is about turning attention to the sounds, a small number of sounds; turning the focus inward (for some composers it might have been to encourage a depth in the listening, a form of contemplation as the elements become the most important aspect of the music, rather than the execution overall).

For me, all of the above makes sense when listening to American composers, especially, associated with minimalism (Riley, Adams, Reich) even if they did not embrace the term for their music, but the pieces that I return to are intense; they carry within them a force often lacking in the so-called-lo-fi hip-hop beats I think are frequently mislabelled in this way. For this appellation to make any sense the sounds themselves need to be “simple” – as in the Godfather Don beat - you can’t have a flashy jazz horn sample lodged alongside a loud basic boom bap beat and then call the music minimalist just because the producer chose to leave it like that for the duration of three minutes or less. It needs to be understated in all senses and yet touch you in a profound way.

Here’s a useful very short introduction to minimalism in music with an excerpt from an interview with Reich and mention of his piece, “It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965/1968. Check out too this interesting Reddit music theory thread debating whether or not US minimalist composers influenced hip-hop as a genre.   

4. “Yeah”/” Where'z the Skillz” (The Ill Funk Freaker EP, One Leg Up Records reissue, 2009 - not clear again if includes instrumental versions)

No information that I could find online about the samples, listen to those beautiful drum sounds that sound close to a bassline and so kept back. All the elements coming forward, but receding constantly and the “jingle bells hi hats! So 90s!” in the words of one listener. The drums in this are really something special; I listen to a lot of New York instrumentals from the 90s, with vocals and without and it’s rare to find beats this creative in terms of the core elements that sound so strong too, after all this time. Here is it with the rhymes over it, the recording is a bit unbalanced with the beat as the key element, the vocal line hard to make out, but this makes it kind of interesting too.

5. “Fame” (Da Bomb single, Hydra Entertainment, 1998)

This is a pure beauty. It’s surprising that there isn’t more of a Bowie/hip-hop overlap, especially considering how deeply immersed Bowie was in Black American source music (his album Young Americans that featured this song, his least favourite on the album was a love letter to these musical roots). As always, it’s the odd details in the beat that make this so special, that shift in the drums sound just over 35 seconds in, for instance and the way one sample from the original track is repeated at the start then disappears entirely to be replaced with another swathe from the song. Godfather Don shifts the hook to make it a critique of his peers, sounding lifted from 80s rap. It was released on the “Da Bomb” record.  Here’s the Bowie original instrumental from the Young Americans album, 1975.

And from the same year, Bowie looking high and malnourished, impressing the Soul Train dancers with his stylish moves (in all his emphatic lip-synch glory, caressing the mic):

Below the YT video there’s this comment on his performance: "I'm very drunk in this" David Bowie told Russell Harty in 1975 referring to his Soul Train TV appearance. "I was very nervous so I had a couple of drinks, which I never do and I really shouldn't have. It's lovely. It's very funny."


6. “Creepin’” (Hydra Beats Vol. 3, Hydra Entertainment, 1997)

(That noise just before 1’30” makes it for me).

Coda:

*Six Beats.

Not a best-of list, not a list with any kind of broader import, six beats, six tracks, six songs by an artist that click with me. Zero significance outside that metric.

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

Originally arranged by Melba Liston, officially re-arranged by Don Sebesky. Trumpet – Freddie Hubbard Flugelhorn – Alan Rubin, John Frosk, Marvin Stamm Trombone – Garnett Brown, Warren Covington, Wayne Andre Bass Trombone – Paul Faulise French Horn – Brooks Tillotson, James Buffington Tenor Saxophone – Grover Washington, Jr. Oboe, Clarinet, Flute – Romeo Penque English Horn, Clarinet, Flute – George Marge Flute – Hubert Laws Piano, Liner Notes – Randy Weston Synthesizer [Moog] – David Horowitz Bass – Ron Carter, Vishnu Wood (track 2) Drums – Bill Cobham Vocals – Madame Meddah

(The above are the album credits)

Randy Weston, according to online sources, didn’t like this record. Thought it was too clean, over-produced, yet four decades-plus on it retains its interest - largely because of the line-up of musicians - and impact, to a degree. (The same original power that made it a “hit” for CTI within jazz circles at the time of release). The Rateyourmusic description spells out how/why Weston rejected the finished product, first calling it: “Progressive Big Band, Afro-Jazz” in bold, then with “Berber Music, Gnawa” hiding in tiny font below. (Discogs has it as: “Big Band, Fusion, Modal.”)

Weston had returned from five years living in Morocco (after a visit to Nigeria in 1961 with Nina Simone and other Black American musicians) and assembled a group of other jazz greats to join him on what is his best-known album.

Listening to it you can hear how the piece’s brassy, big band display is an uneasy fit for the musical influences you imagine Weston wanted to pay homage to in this work; even his earlier recordings were more interior, more deconstructed, less showy and bombastic. Thom Jurek’s AllMusic review takes a more positive view, noting that the flashy horns “frenetic, minor-key piano lines, knotty, Middle Eastern Eastern-sounding charts, and skittering North African rhythms push the listener into a new space, one that stands outside of CTI's usual frame in, and into, the exotic.”

Yet this notion of the music being “exotic” (and emphasis on how the “listener” might hear it) backs up Weston’s complaint about it not being true to his vision, as does the sleeve image, according to a review in LondonJazz the Pete Turner cover photo features “the stare of a mystic, focused on infinity — a psychedelic, solarised image drawn from Turner’s visit to the Far East.” The review quotes the photographer: “This is a holy man, in Benares, India, near the Ganges,” taken while he was “on assignment covering Allen Ginsberg.”

There is little to suggest that Randy Weston had any interest in India - at that point - or any affinity with a beatnik like Ginsberg. His attention was solely focussed on his own “ancestral” roots in Africa. In interviews included here - from Montreux 2016 and Open Democracy 2012 - Weston makes it clear that the “African” influence was there in his work and self from the beginning, instilled in him by his Panama-born father who repeated that he was an “African born in America” alongside the perspective of his mother’s Virginia family. This was then mirrored by the world he saw all around him of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn New York in the 1930S-1940s of his youth. It could be seen in the way he played piano, he tells us; he like all other Black American jazz musicians played the piano as if he were playing the drums. The (memory of the ) drums never left us, he explains.



AMY GOODMAN: Langston Hughes dies in May (1967).

RANDY WESTON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And before the end of the year, you’ve moved to Africa.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision and where you went.

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’m sure it’s because of Marshall Stearns. He was on the State Department board. That’s for sure. Unfortunately, Marshall died before I had a chance to thank him. But I was chosen to do a State Department tour of 14 countries in 1967 of North Africa and West Africa and Beirut and Lebanon. And I put together a great band: Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Bill Wood on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, and Chief Bey on African drum. And I took my son with me, as a teen—he was 15, Niles, at that particular time. And we had a wonderful, wonderful tour. And I requested, whatever country we went to, I would like to be in touch with the traditional music of that country.

And so, we spent three months in Africa. And it was a good test for me, because, you know, you can write music about Africa in New York, but the test is when you play that music on the continent itself.

When I play music in Africa, I tell the people, “This is your music. You may not recognize it, because it came in contact with European languages, it came in contact with European instruments, you see. But it’s your music, you know.” And I always had Chief Bey, because Chief Bey always had the African traditional drum. So we had a big success in Africa, because it was not only a concert, but having the people understand the impact of African rhythms in world music, whether it’s Brazil or Cuba or Mississippi or Brooklyn, whatever. If you don’t have that African pulse, nothing is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So you move, Randy Weston, to Morocco. Why Morocco?

RANDY WESTON: Morocco was the very last country, and that’s when I wanted to live in Africa, because I wanted to be closer to the traditional people. And when you do a State Department tour, you have to make a report: what you like, what you didn’t like, etc., etc., etc. So I stayed in Rabat for one week working on this report. And so, I went back to New York. About one month later, I got these letters from Morocco saying the Moroccan people are crazy about your music, and they want you to come back. So I had no idea I was going to be in Morocco, because, number one, the languages spoken are Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish—very little English, you see. But the power of music is the original language, is music, right? So I went back and ended up staying seven years. And that’s when I discovered the Africans who were taken in slavery who had to cross the Sahara Desert. I discovered these [inaudible]. I discovered their music, the Gnawa people in particular in Morocco. So that really enriched my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Gnawa people.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, the Gnawa people, they’re originally from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana, Mali, you know. And during the invasion from the north, they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to the north. But they created a very powerful spiritual music. And so, I first met them in 1967, and we’ve been together up until this day, because when you hear this music, you hear the origin of blues, of jazz, of black church, all at the same time. You realize that. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to America? What has African people brought with them? Because when they were taken away, they had no instruments, no language, no nothing. How did they take these European instruments and create music? But when you hear the traditional people, you realize, music began in Africa in the first place. And the music is so diverse, because the continent itself is so diverse. So if you go to the Sahara, you’re going to have music of the Sahara. You go to the mountains, you’re going to have the music, because African people create music based upon where they live, their environment. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I was influenced by the Palladium, by the black church, by the blues, Mississippi. So where you—you know, it is the foundation of what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play “Blue Moses” a little bit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course. [playing “Blue Moses”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, you often quote the Somali poet Moussa.

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he said—Moussa, I met him in Nigeria in 1977. He said, “Randy,” he said, “I’m going to tell you one thing.” He said, “The first thing that changes is the music, because music is the voice of God, is music.” He said, “Music is our first language.” We think French or English or Arabic or Spanish is our language. There was a time we didn’t have those languages. The language was music, because we listened to the music of the birds. We listened to the music of Mother Nature. We listened to the wind, the sound of thunder. So, he says, “When you have ordinary music, you’re going to have ordinary times.” Yeah, and I’ll never forget that, yeah. And when you have creative music, you have creative times, because music—you can’t see music. You can’t touch music. Music is the king of the arts, you see. And so, music is everywhere. But we tend to take music for granted. But imagine our planet without music. It would be dead, because all people have their music, you see.

Black History Special: Jazz Legend Randy Weston on His Life and Celebration of “African Rhythms” Open Democracy, 2012. Watch the video interview here.



“Blue Moses,” feat. Pharaoh Sanders, The Spirits of Our Ancestors, Verve, 1991

To understand how Randy Weston might have liked the original 1972 to sound like (and be, in essence), listen to these recordings from 1991 and 2006. I won’t describe them. The music is far more eloquent on the subject than I could ever be.

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Pharaoh Sanders - tenor saxophone, Alex Blake - bass, Jamil Nasser - bass, Idris Muhammad - drums, Big Black - percussion, Yassir Chadly - percussion, karkuba, vocal. Arr: Melba Liston, prod. Jean-Philippe Allard/Brian Bacchus

“Blue Moses,” Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio, Zep Tepi, Random Choice, 2006

Personnel: Randy Weston - piano, Alex Blake - double bass, Neil Clarke - percussion, prod. Paul West.

“Blue Moses” Randy Weston and Dar Gnawa of Tanger, New School, New York 2013

“The Gnawa in Morocco, like African-Americans in the United States, were taken as slaves from sub-Saharan Africa and developed a unique and very spiritual music and culture. Gnawa music is one of the major musical currents in Morocco. Moroccans overwhelmingly love Gnawa music and Gnawas 'Maalems' are highly respected, and enjoy an aura of musical stardom. On October 13, 2015, Abdellah El Gourd and Dar Gnawa of Tanger joined New School Jazz Artist-In-Residence, pianist and composer Randy Weston for a discussion and demonstration of various aspects of traditional Gnawan music, and how this African musical tradition has influenced Weston's own compositions. The two first met in 1968 after Weston moved to Morocco and continue to perform together around the world, nearly fifty years later. It was El Gourd who initiated the pianist into the riches of Gnawa music. Weston explains, "The Gnawa people and their music represent one of the strongest spiritual connections I've ever experienced." Dar Gnawa of Tanger, a group of traditional Moroccan musicians led by El Gourd, performed and were joined by Randy Weston on piano. This program is part of the Randy Weston Artist-In-Residency series at The New School for Jazz, produced by Phil Ballman.”

Information from below the YouTube video

To close, a touching performance by Randy Weston and Alex Blake at the memorial service for Freddie Hubbard, recorded December 2008 at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Randy Weston (April 6, 1926-September 1, 2018)

"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.

MB: I remember the last time we spoke, you said that you were interested in developing engineering skills. How do you assess your development here, not just as a producer, but as an engineer?

Black Milk: I feel I’ve grown as both a producer and an engineer. I’m always in search of new things, different things, that I can add to what I do to make it sound better. As a producer, that’s pretty much my day to day, trying to figure out things, or working out ways to create an even better sound to what I’ve done in the past. Not necessarily better, but to expand it, you know, and see if I can push it to its limits even more; that’s the way it is.

MB: You’ve mixed your previous recordings, right?

Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve mixed all my albums. I’ve always mixed my music, produced my music, and created it. This is not a new task that I’ve taken on. I think with the last two or three projects the difference is I’ve become more focused on engineering, more than anything. Of course, I’ve always mixed my stuff, but I wasn’t as focused on the engineering side as trying to produce a great track or produce a great beat. Producing is second nature to me at this point, but I feel like I need to have more strength in mixing as an engineer.

MB: Now, the title FEVER. I’ve read that you chose the title because of the current climate in the US, but it’s also the name of one of the most famous songs from the twentieth century, written by Little Willie John in 1956 and covered by so many artists, from Peggy Lee to The Cramps. You haven’t mentioned this, I’m wondering why.

Black Milk: [Sings] “You give me fever…,” that song?

MB: Yeah, surely making a link here is intentional?

Black Milk: No, that wasn’t intentional, I didn’t even have that song in mind when I chose the title. The way I come up with any of my album titles is I try to find a lot of different phrases that sound good to me that also look good on paper, “fever” was one of words out of a long list that I had. I like the way the word looks; I like the way the letters are, and I wanted to do a one-word title, I didn’t want to do a long album title. Of course, I knew about the song “Fever” and an earlier album with the same name, but it had nothing to do with why I titled my album FEVER.

MB: FEVER isn’t a standard hip-hop album. When creating the music, were you thinking about how it fits in a genre? To me it sounds a lot like late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz-funk, Quincy Jones, The Blackbyrds, etc.

Black Milk: Well, I look at myself as an artist that is seen as someone who is original, you know, making music and art from the heart and from a real place, a true place. That comes with rewards and sometimes, consequences, I don’t know if “consequences” is the right word, but it’s like you’re going to find yourself in situations that lead to certain kinds of struggles or hurdles in terms of pushing through and getting exposed to a more mainstream audience.The flipside of this is that when you create something that’s unique, different, and in a lane of its own, it gets respect, not only from your fellow musicians, but from a certain kind of fan who appreciates individuality. That’s more important to me when it’s all said and done. When I look back at my legacy I want to feel like I stayed true to what I wanted to do and was able to still make a career and a living off the work and it coming from a real place. A lot of artists you’ve just mentioned I think that’s what they were doing, so I’m in good company.

MB: I hear what you’re saying, in some ways it’s true, but in other ways it’s not because there seems to be a real resurgence in this sound, say the various recent Robert Glasper projects. Do you think that there is a kind of revival of this sound happening now?

Black Milk: Yeah, there’s definitely a revival of not only the sound but it’s a revival of artists doing what they want to do and challenging their audience, challenging their fans. I think this is because we live in the Internet age. Now more so than ever you can be an individual because if you’re good at what you do and know how to market and promote yourself online you can create an audience in a bubble, in a world that has nothing to do with anything else outside of that bubble and people will find you. They will come inside that bubble, that world and support that. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.We live in a time now when everyone can be who they want to be and if they do it well they can create a world for themselves and people who enjoy what they do. That’s where I am now, I’m more focused on creating my own world and whoever enjoys what I do in my world, they can be a part of it. I don’t ever have to worry about competing against anyone else: I’m my own competition.

MB: Something interesting about your career is that you have a very strong international presence, and this might bring a different audience. A recent show you did in Paris was at a jazz venue, this is also why I asked about jazz-funk because it seems there’s a space for people who are not only ‘real hip-hop heads’ to connect with your work because it’s different. Is this something you’re thinking about as well?

Black Milk: Yeah, that’s something I’ve observed with this new album. I feel like I’ve seen more musicians follow me and comment on what I’m doing. I’ve seen more people in general who are not necessarily in the hip-hop space support the music and follow me on social media and comment on the music. That’s where I want to be.I want my music and myself as an artist to cross over into that world of live music and musicians. The hip-hop world is cool and it’s great, I’ve developed a good reputation in the hip-hop space, but I feel like my music—especially at this point—there are more layers to it than a hip-hop beat and some hip-hop verses. I’m trying to up the musicality on what I do. That shows with my new album as different kinds of people, different kinds of audiences gravitate towards it. Hopefully when I do the tour for this album I’ll see an even more diverse audience in front of me when I’m up on stage.

MB: Another link with that era is the sample on “Will Remain” from Rare Silk, their song “Storm” from 1985. This seems to be the only obvious sample on the record, is that correct?

Black Milk: That was just one of those records. I’m still looking for samples, that’s still part of the process, I still love chopping up samples so sometimes when I come across a record to sample, I feel like it’s just so good that I would be do a disservice to the track if I tried to chop it up, or disguise it or do too much to it, I prefer to just leave it alone. That was one of those tracks where I loved the vocal sample so much I didn’t want to do anything but add drums, and a little bit of music around it. I didn’t want to manipulate it that much to lose the feeling that made me gravitate towards it. That’s why I left it kind of obvious.

MB: That’s one of the outstanding tracks on the record for me, I like the way you make things out of sync, or a bit off-kilter and there’s a very interesting drum/bass interaction going on as well.

Black Milk: I found Rare Silk’s “Storm” on YouTube. I’d never heard of it and I was like, I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard it ‘cause as a producer I’ve heard of most things, so when I found it I put it to the side ’cause I knew that I was going to use it eventually for the album. I went to Detroit and had the musicians put the guitar part down, the keys on top of it and felt like I needed to make a record that would represent the feel of the beat and the feel of the track. I tried to write a hook, but felt that the vocal sample was so good, I just left it alone, just let the sample breathe by itself.


MB: The classic hip-hop elements on the record are subtle, which is refreshing, even on the single “True Lies.” The hook is kind of different. Is this something you’re trying to do as well, to write songs that are different from the classic hip-hop formula?

Black Milk: Yeah, it’s conscious as I try to create some flows and cadences and structures that aren’t the norm, so with “True Lies”—that’s my personal favorite on the album—that’s one of the reasons why because the hook is broken up. I leave space between the track and my verse, just to let the track breathe. I think I’m going to do more of that in the future with songs I create where I use my voice like another instrument on the album. I know people often say this, but I didn’t want to over rap, or do too much vocally where it took away from the track. I just wanted to my voice to weave in and out of the beat.

MB: That comes through when you hear “True Lies.” It’s a change in delivery, especially the pausing, it seems like it comes from live performance where you’re keeping some space for the audience response. You’re performing with a live band all the time. Is this something you now factor in when writing songs?

Black Milk: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that is something to keep in mind. I’ve done so many shows over the years and now have a good idea of what moves people, what rhythms and vibes move a room. I definitely keep that in mind. When I’m on stage I do songs that are a little bit more laidback, not overly hyped. I think that’s when I captivate the room the most. That was one reason why I made some of the new music a bit more spaced out and smooth, relaxed, not overly aggressive and in your face ’cause I knew for the most part that’s what works well live.

MB: There are other great musicians as well, but let’s start with the drummers [Chris Dave and Daru Jones] and bass [Malik Hunter] as they are the key parts on the songs.

Black Milk: In terms of working with Malik, I’ve been working with him a long time, he’s part of Nat Turner, my live show. On this album he played bass and my guitarist also played bass on certain tracks, Sasha Kashperko, he’s my guitarist and played some bass on some songs.Daru Jones played on about four tracks, including the song with Dwele, “2 Would Try.” The beat was pretty much already made but I got Daru to play on top of the drums I put down. On the song you can hear the muting in and out of his drums and my drums, my drums are regularly programmed MPC drums. I also had Chris Dave, another well-known, iconic drummer play percussion on “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and “Drown.”

MB: The instrumental “DiVE” is an extraordinary piece of music. When I was listening to it I felt like the drums had a West African percussion feel to it, the drums are just great.

Black Milk: Thank you. I think that was the last track I put on the album. I already had the beat. I don’t know, the samples led me to make that kind of drum beat when I put it together and got my guitarist Sasha Kashperko played the guitar part over it.
MB: How do you make the decision as to whether a track is going to be sample-based or live?

Black Milk: I don’t know, almost every track has a live element. I just always feel that way. The live texture of a horn, or drum or bass, you can’t really duplicate the feel in software, just as a drum machine can’t duplicate the feel of someone playing, you get close but it’s never exact. I always love the energy of someone playing live on a track because most of the music I love from back in the day is live, so I like to try and incorporate that in some way into almost every track I do if I can.Even a track like “But I Can Be” is a track that started off as a melody from a Parliament/Funkadelic record that I had everyone playing on. I then took what they played and I used it like I would use a sample from a record, chopped it up, reprogrammed it, turned it into a different key, and turned it into something totally different from what they played. That happens a lot too where musicians might play something; I don’t use what they play in that moment but take it and manipulate it, turn it into something totally different. It just depends on the track, it depends on the mood of the song.

MB: Earlier, you mentioned the song “Drown.” I think it’s an interesting song because it’s impressive musically, but it has a political dimension as well; you’re talking about police violence and racism. Can talk about this track because I don’t think it’s gotten much attention?

Black Milk: I feel the same way. It’s probably another one of my favorites. I felt like I needed to address what is still going on with police and the black community, the relationship between the two and other things that have happened over the last couple of years.I felt like I needed to do it from a perspective that hasn’t really been spoken about, to talk about the idea that anyone who is part of a police force and sees the injustice that is happening and they’re not doing anything to make it better, or getting people who shouldn’t be in a police problem out of there, I feel like they are part of the problem as well. If they see something and don’t do anything about it. I felt like this was something I wanted to mention. In terms of production I had a track that I’d sampled and beat that I felt was perfect backdrop for that song.

MB: It’s not didactic, you’ve kept it subtle. In interviews, you’ve talked about your need to be “simple” and “bold” on FEVER, but the stronger songs are the ones where the message is more nuanced. “Drown” is a good example of that.

Black Milk: Yeah, I definitely didn’t want the album to come off preachy. I wanted to speak about a number of topics, but consciously wanted to do them in a way where I didn’t come off holier than thou or up on my high horse, pretentious or coming off like I’m better than everyone or judgmental.I think judgmental is the perfect word because a lot of times you have rappers who talk online all day giving their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong and it comes off annoying. It gets to a point where you just want to say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and then you listen to the music and you feel they’re trying to tell you what to do, you know? Everyone has a certain way that they live and a certain way they look at life, so I just wanted to say it in a way that feels like I’m not attacking anyone.

MB: The final words of the album are powerful: “Everyone is a potential victim.” One thing I noticed about the record is that the songs finish quite abruptly, and then this also has a very abrupt feeling; it leaves you feeling a bit destabilized. What’s going on there?

Black Milk: With that phrase, “Everyone is a potential victim,” it’s basically just saying that after everything I’ve said on the album, all the things I’ve talked about, I kind of felt like no matter who you are, what level in life you have, if you’re not part of the powers that be that control the world or the situation we live in, everyone is a potential victim. That’s what that little phrase meant at the end: No one is better than anyone at the end of the day, we’re all human, everyone is a potential victim to the powers that be.

MB: That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?

Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah and that was the last, literally the last piece that I put on the album. I found that little piece of dialogue the night before I turned in the album. I just felt that would be a pretty perfect way to end the album.

"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.”


Writing about an artist always involves multiple, sometimes contradictory, impulses: your motivation is greatest when writing on something that clicks with you, but you also need to be true to how the artist sees themselves and their work. Not to reproduce their perspective so much as show respect to the artist’s vision, otherwise the project doesn’t make much sense. Still choices are made. Rather than me unpicking Cormega’s recent more philosophical work, my interest here is to focus on “Killaz Theme,” with “Unforgiven” as the coda.

This is a partial – even personal – perspective on Cormega’s work. It’s not an overview of a career, but writing inspired by some of his music, and possibly work that he would like to transcend. (This is speculation on my part, which may be wrong: he’s said that “Killaz Theme” is a favourite track of his, but also said in the DEHH interview that he never wanted to glorify crime, which “Killaz Theme” and “Unforgiven” might do to a certain extent).

This work flows from questions and thoughts about the way the desire for justice – and the associated themes of betrayal, injustice, the quest for revenge – are represented in various musical genres, starting with dub reggae, but also all forms of Black American music to end with hip-hop. There is so much talk of “the struggle” in hip-hop (and reggae), what I’m interested in thinking about here is how those forced to endure such conditions might reflect the emotional toll such oppression takes on their private selves in their music.

Around the same time I (first) listened to “Killaz Theme” on repeat, I’d broken my typical rule of keeping it eclectic and kept my focus firmly fixed on dub/reggae. Listening to the Cormega/Mobb Deep track, within this space came as a jolt. Not only for the work’s poetic intensity, but the way it undermined reggae’s dominant conceptual framework; that is a belief that wrongdoers will be judged, that Jah sees all. Despite the image of reggae as the genre extolling “one love,” underpinning much of the lyricism is righteous anger and faith that on the final day of judgement the inhabitants of Babylon will be punished. Frequently dub/reggae lyricism builds on clearly defined polarities, between those leading a godly life and those committing all kinds of crimes, encouraging listeners to choose the right path.

This is deeply “biblical” - Old Testament in nature – and tough, even if the denunciation of the devil and longed for day of judgement is sung in the dulcet tones of Twinkle Brothers or Carlton and the Shoes.

Belief that the world’s wrongs will be brought to justice is equally deep in Black American tradition and musical culture; the other day I watched an interview with bell hooks where she slipped a casual reference to “Babylon” in her reply, not skipping for a breath, but it’s been there from the beginning, in the Spirituals in the Blues.

Think too of gospel, even if frequently there is space for contemplation and a questioning tone, amid the bombast of the chorus, where the soloist makes such themes personal. See, for instance, this really beautiful piece, “Do you believe” by the Supreme Jubilees (It’ll All Be Over, Sanders & Kingsby, 1980/81) that includes the rhetorical question: “What if you live a sinner’s role, at the end of time you must surely lose your soul.” Or Aretha Franklin’s sweet medley “Precious Lord You’ve Got A Friend” which is deeply comforting, providing solace; both the way the music of the chorus rises and the amazing vocal performance of Franklin, urging us to “meditate on him.” This is far removed from the stark clarity of dub reggae’s fire and brimstone call for reckoning, despite the religious roots of both.

Late 60s/early 70s jazz includes many implicit/explicit meditations on judgement and racialised justice: too many to detail here. Indeed the oeuvre of certain artists embody this territory, in terms of their work’s lyrical content, but also in their pure being – see Nina Simone:

Within Soul/R&B the general, all-encompassing shifts to the personal so that critiques of “smiling faces” and “backstabbers” abound: see the Undisputed Truth’s classic song of 1971 that was covered by David Ruffin three years later with an incomparable introduction. For the most part the “judgement” aspect of the lyricism remains personal, spelling out betrayals, the feelings of regret and loss linked to relationships between lovers and friends. While the genre’s political songs from the ‘70s favour a descriptive approach that rarely condemns those perpetuating the system or the injustice: see the Stevie Wonder penned “Heaven Help Us All” that has been described as the song expressing the essence of Motown or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).”

With this in mind a song like Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” is striking, the slowed-down groove and song’s lyricism focuses on the “we” - and the potential loss - not the “they “ responsible for causing the narrowly averted environmental disaster; the only lines registering the malfeasance links it to greed: “That when it comes to people's safety/money wins out every time.”

One of Curtis Mayfield’s greatest songs, “Stare and Stare” conveys a typically nuanced perspective while tackling social issues; the target of the critique remains multiple, fluid. Sadness and despondency dominate here, as Mayfield expresses his disappointment that doing good and brotherhood mean nothing, noting that on the shared space of the bus “a sister is standing and no-one even cares” and that “some people boarding, different color than us/They hate to mingle but no one makes a fuss/The thing about it, there’s no one here we can trust ...”

II.

“Killaz Theme,” Cormega, feat. Mobb Deep, prod. Havoc (1998)

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever done with Mobb Deep. I just had to have that on my album. The reason I called it ‘Killaz Theme’ was because Havoc had a brother named Killa Black, God bless the dead, he died. When I heard the beat and I heard the chorus where Havoc’s saying, “We wanna kill you,” I just imagined his brother smiling and singing that type of shit. It reminded me of his brother, so I basically named it after my brother. I named it after Killa Black.

“I leaked that shit in ’98 because it was just too dope and I was on the road. I was on the shelf [at Def Jam] but I thought my album was coming out that year and it didn’t, so I just leaked that song to see what people thought of it, and people went crazy.

“I think Havoc did some beat for me and then he used it for something else. So ‘Killaz Theme’ became the make-up beat and oh am I glad he used that fucking first beat, because it was way better than what he did for me originally. When he did it, I came to the studio and Havoc was asleep behind the big studio console. He’d been drinking so I remember he was asleep and when I came he woke right up, pressed the button on the machine, laid back down and all I heard was, ‘We wanna kill you.’ And the beat came on and I was blown the fuck away. I was like, ‘Whatever the fuck Havoc just did, he needa do it again. Go to sleep all the time.’ That’s one of my favorite tracks ever out of my entire catalog.”

Hip-hop/rap as a genre is awash in lyrical violence; MCs frequently recount acts of violence they’ve witnessed or committed against enemies, friends who have betrayed them and former lovers while including boasts of their ability to cause physical and other harm. Rhymes also recount systemic violence; police profiling, murders, mass incarceration, the denial of the means of economic survival, schooling and housing segregation.

Most of the time such themes, including the more abstract/political frameworks, are presented in first-person narratives, encouraging us to see the stories as an extension of the artist and their lived experience; notions of truth, being authentic, keeping it real are ways people judge the worth of the rhymes. All this leads to an interesting doubling, or tension. In an art-form that is extremely artificial (see the emphasis on language/lyricism) the MC is frequently judged in terms of how true they are to their personal experiences.

Alongside the personal struggle narrative and MCs boasting of their skills, the other key lyrical theme in hip-hop – maybe even the key theme – is seeking revenge against those who’ve betrayed you. This also plays out in all the media-friendly “beefs” between the MCs (something that is almost unknown in other musical genres) - a major source of entertainment for all those looking on.

All this operates on the level of the interpersonal and the individual gripe, rather than some imagined Armageddon hailing justice on the maintainers of the corrupt, racist system. Of course there are exceptions: Public Enemy brought the noise in 1988 and warned of the current white supremacist neurosis so evident today in the United States, maintaining a clear-eyed desire for justice that would not be out of place in any of the most ferocious reggae songs of this ilk, other artists too mined this territory: from Paris to Dead Prez to Killah Priest to Ras Kass to Geto Boys, the list goes on.

“Killaz Theme II” - recorded in 1998, included as a bonus track on the 2001 The Realness album (and also Cormega’s 2005 album, The Testament ) reworked some of the lyrics from “You Don’t Want It,” prod. Godfather Don and later inspired the Lloyd Banks tribute and was used as a sample on a Conway The Machine track, “Mandatory” feat. Royce 5’9”.

In the comments below the YouTube video for “Killaz Theme” there’s speculation about who is the target of the repeated threat - We want to kill you (that's right)
We want to kill you (no doubt, that's right) … Is it Nas, the subject of a famous beef with Cormega that inspired some of his best songs, or someone else, or no person in particular?

The fact that the target of the threat is not identified is central to the song’s power. The important thing is not who suffers, but the desire (among the victims) to cause damage and inflict the harm on those who have wronged them. Despite talk of forgiveness and letting go, those who are victimised and expected to bear the brunt of it on a daily basis inevitably feel angry and long for justice; heard above a whisper it might sound just like this. Such music enacts the elemental voice of those forced to live in the shadow of persecution. Havoc in the final moments intoning “We want to kill you” has an almost meditative quality that sounds extremely real, as if we’re hearing voices from the underground.

Notice the way the song is put together, from the three MC verses to the instrumental. The beat by Havoc, all swirling strings builds at certain points as if the soundtrack of some kind of twisted romance where certain words are doubled for emphasis (“armed robbery”). Listener comments say the beat borrows from The Twilight Zone soundtrack (I haven’t been able to check or disprove this). There’s something erotic about this music. Not in the conventional sense of two people, but something more general and elemental: it sounds like a lust for revenge, as if it is all that these MCs desire, above all else (“that’s right”).

Prodigy’s verse ends on the lines:

Put this in heavy rotation
Overdose music,
it’s therapeutic to the user
Drive awhile under the influence of this
Careful cause you might just crash and shit
Total your whip and still pull my tape out your deck
Me and Mobb tryna connect,
like thirty-thousand dollar links
Unpopable, unstopable, topple

Maybe because of the fact that it is so raw and unfiltered, as Prodigy notes, this “overdose music” is “therapeutic to the user.” Something lost in all the condemnations of rap/hip-hop violence is the fact that listening to this kind of music allows those who feel stepped on, disrespected and worse to feel vicarious power; the rousing music of Havoc’s instrumental reinforces this.

That said, I know that there’s a risk in me over-stating the universality of the track and its impact, especially since Havoc’s verse suggests that it might be specific to the three MCs and conflicts they face closer to home:

Got drama with my clique
I’mma take it to the source QBC representative,
I’m just tryin to live
If I can’t get to you,
I’mma take it to your kids
Spray your crib, fuck it son, somethin’ gotta give If I can’t live,
then ain’t nothin’ gonna live

I’m just tryin’ to live.

Coda:

Cormega, “Unforgiven” The Realness, prod. Gold Fingas (Spank Brother)

“I just wanted it to be gutter. There’s a certain raw Mega that people used to really like. Even now people say they wish I would do some shit like that and be that raw person, but I’m not that person anymore in life. I wanted that record to be hard and I’d already released a hard edge song, but I wanted something new that no one ever heard, so that’s what ‘Unforgiven’ was.

“That was a raw fucking record. The producer’s name isn’t actually Spank Brother, it’s Gold Fingas. What happened was at the time he didn’t have a producer name back then, and The Realness was a rushed album, so the credits and the artwork needed to be turned in early because it takes a certain amount of time for the album to get printed. So I needed a name for him and at the time he ain’t have no name. I was trying to get in touch with him but I couldn’t so I didn’t know what to do.

“So Spank’s brother produced it…it was the last day to turn the album in and we still didn’t have a name for him yet, so I was like fuck it. Put Spank’s Brother because that was my man Spank’s brother. So that’s how that name got on there. And when I do the sequel to The Realness, I’m gonna try to bring every producer that was on the first one on the sequel, so when he appears on the sequel, God willing, he’ll be Gold Fingas.”

The track includes the unforgettable sample from Yusef Lateef’s Symphonic Blues Suite, Fourth Movement : Passacaglia (Suite 16, Rhino Atlantic, 1970),

The same sample was used in IAM’s 1997 track “Un bon son brut pour les truands” (L’Ecole du micro d’argent, Delabel, 1997)

***

You swimmin' with the sharks and the water is tainted
If you feel it in your heart (bring it)

“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.

There are many performances of this piece, as you would expect for such a famous work; many if not most have a deep, unified approach that can border on the schmaltz, unfortunately, To get a sense of an alternative approach that is less lyrical but still retains some delicacy, not weighed down by this “united front” see this rendition by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

Other reggae artists covered the song, soon after its release: principally Alton Ellis, prod. Coxsone Dodd, on his 1967 album Alton Ellis LP : Sings Rock & Soul:

This cover is another marvel (for me); the combination of the manic/maniacal keys and one of the best basslines, a mix of tentative and insistent - going no particular place - the jagged beat and then the really special delivery of Alton Ellis, all those added syllables and stretching of words, it’s so heartfelt. Beautiful.

Pat Kelly released his version in 1979, production by Ossie Hibbert:

While researching this work I came across two really excellent extended pieces on Roland Alphonso; these two essays stood out, even if there wasn’t much available online on an artist whose career spanned five decades and included working with the key figures and being a founding member of the Skatalites.

The first by Brian Keyo (see his site, Tallawah.com here which includes a great introduction to the era, “From The Aces To The Zodiacs, A Primer in Jamaican Rock Steady”) covers Alphonso’s career in enormous detail, with anecdotes that are both informative and frequently touching. After reading his essay, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998, A Remembrance of the Chief Musician” I felt like I had not only increased my knowledge of the artist, alongside his contemporaries but also had a sense of the man’s character and personality.

The second comes from reggaevibes.com and linked to the 2016 reissue of ABC Rocksteady on Dub Store Records. You can read it in full here, but following this is an extract that puts Alphonso’s career in context:

“Mrs. Sonia Pottinger is one of Jamaica’s reggae pioneers. She was the first female Jamaican record producer, running her Gay Feet and High Note labels out of her Tip-Top Record shop in Orange Street, Kingston. After some minor hits during the ska period she broke through in the rocksteady era with gigantic hits from The Melodians, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe, Stranger & Patsy and Delano Stewart. In the seventies she delivered excellent productions by Culture, Marcia Griffiths, Justin Hinds, Bob Andy and Big Youth. In 1985 she left the business. Sonia Pottinger died at her home in Kingston on 3 November 2010.

In 1968 she released an instrumental album by Roland Alphonso, “ABC Rocksteady”. The original liner notes reveal the motivation behind the making of this album: “It came about as a result of four months of intensive and extensive study by the producer – the need for proper orchestration was the first consideration – the lack of that “something” in most rocksteady arrangements, made it necessary to select a group of musicians who apart from their individual ability, could together provide unequalled harmony.” The album was known as “Roland Alphonso With The Originals Orchestra – ABC Rocksteady” and appeared on the Gay Feet label in Jamaica, in the UK it was issued by High Note Records with a different sleeve. The Original Orchestra were Aubrey Adams on organ and Lynn Tait on guitar. Bass player Boris Gardiner arranged and conducted the project at West Indies Studios with Lynford Anderson aka Andy Capp as engineer.

Roland Alphonso aka “The Chief Musician” (12 January 1931 – 20 November 1998) was a Jamaican tenor saxophonist, and one of the founding members of the Skatalites. Born in Havana, Cuba, Alphonso came to Jamaica at the age of two with his Jamaican mother, and started to learn saxophone at the Stony Hill Industrial School. In 1948 he left school to join Eric Deans’ orchestra. In 1956 he first recorded for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, although these early recordings were lost before they were mastered. He became a regular member of the in-house band of session musicians for producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid. He also acted as arranger at many of Dodd’s recording sessions.

By 1960, he was recording for many producers on the island and he took part in the creation of The Studio One Orchestra, the first session band at Dodd’s newly opened recording studio. This band soon adopted the name of The Skatalites. When the Skatalites disbanded by August 1965, Alphonso formed the Soul Brothers (with Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, and Jackie Mittoo) to become The Soul Vendors in 1967. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he kept on playing on numerous records coming out of Jamaican studios, especially for Bunny Lee. He was awarded Officer of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1977, and started to tour more often in the US. He took part in the reformation of the Skatalites in 1983, with whom he toured and recorded constantly until he suffered a burst blood vessel in his head during a show at the Key Club in Hollywood. He died on 20 November 1998 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.”

Below is an interview with Roger Steffens, where Roland Alphonso speaks in depth about his career on “The Reggae Beat”show. It also includes a live performance from 1985. Steffens starts by asking one of the “most controversial questions” in reggae history (relating to Coxsone Dodd and the Skatalites) to get a crazy-sounding laugh from Alphonso in reply as he shares his knowledge.

“Hop Special” (Whiter Shade of Pale)” was released as a single; the other side was “On The Move” - the accompanying musicians were Lynn Taitt & The Jets. To close then here’s one of their greatest - and funniest - tracks, “Soul Food” from 1968:

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.

Not so long ago I listened to an interview with Robert Wyatt where he said that his career has been devoted to recreating a certain sound, over and over again in all its permutations, that expressed something of his character and was personal to him. One sound over and over again, returning to the source. This is something I also believe in terms of how I hear and write about music. As even though I became an adult in a diametrically opposed environment to that of Prodigy and Havoc (on the other side of the earth, in another time-zone), returning to listen to Mobb Deep some years back convinced me of the rightness of this path as a listener and writer (as this early excitable almost-giddy-fan-missive shows). None of this has changed.

Mobb Deep’s music also has another deep personal significance, as someone who went to the 2015 show at The Bataclan, only weeks before the massacre took place; a shared trauma that remains deeply felt here in Paris, even if it is rarely mentioned.

(See this essay on Prodigy that I wrote following his death last year that explores this more ….)

Often it’s said that Havoc gets overlooked in all those best-of-producers-lists. This is true. It’s not my place to make an assessment of his career, since the 90s or in terms of its influence on others. Such assessments tend to miss the point anyway. No-one would compare novelists like this: no-one would bother saying that J.D. Salinger, a writer whose one masterpiece influenced all U.S. writers in his wake is less important/worthy than Saul Bellow. To do so would be a disservice to both, denying the achievement of one, when diminishing the other.

There are few albums from the same era that master the symmetry or strange mood of his music (let alone the adventurous use of samples). Yes, there are other New York 90s-era producers who are more inventive, risk-taking or elegant, who might be more skilled in terms of their creations, who have had more varied careers, but few create music that sticks with you in the same way. There’s something deeply affecting about the simplicity and control of Havoc’s production. Then, judging it from a European perspective, this work can be heard at the very foundations of French rap and there is a direct line between it and the sound of London rap, and grime.

I.

“Apostle’s Warning”

Two things impress me each time I hear this instrumental; first the extraordinary depth and beauty/weirdness of the first 20 seconds or so that originally reminded me of a kind of cowboy “Raw Hide” cry, à la Wu-Tang Clan, but in fact is a super-clipped sample of Michael Jackson’s version of “People Make the World Go ‘Round” from his 1972 album, Ben.

For this alone the track would be impressive, just on the basis of the way the sample is used. The second thing is harder to express in words, but relates to the way expectations are up-ended in terms of how the sounds are placed; where are the drums here, in relation to the bass-line; which is more dominant, and what, in fact, is that bass sound? It’s so rare and strange and intense.

[Verse 2: Prodigy]
Yo, my empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes
My entire unit loaded up with snake ni**as that hire stakes
We pull off a high stakes, great escapes, expand, shift team downstate
Dreams of growing old with my son to live great
Little man I'm plannin' to enhance your mindstate
The rebirth, a ni**a who lived an ill life
The one before me was of an even more trife
My understandin', I'll raise you with precise plannin'
And put you on to the whole game of this planet
But I gotta survive in order to follow through
Plans to live lotto, me and my little kicko
Any man tryin' to stop us, he get wet tho
He couldn't withstand the snake bite, there is no antidote
Don't you put your hands too close and try to approach
I won't snap at you I'm goin' for throats
And when you feel my bite, ya sing high notes
I peeped you from deep and then you got cut close
My formulae: I live life do or die
Stare into the eyes of a deep wiseguy
Prodigy, turnin' ni**as to protegés
My protegé, I advise ya ass to make way
Make way...for fully-auto gun spray
You're small prey, I'll easily bait and trap game
This man is half mad scientist-half sane
Create a rhyme labyrinth like poisonous cannabis
Here, take a toke of this deadly rare vocalist
Overpower y'all, tiny noise like locusts
Like sunlight thru a magnifying glass I'll focus and burn
A hole straight thru ya brain and leave ya open (Oh shit!)
And let the venom soak in
You start sweatin' and goin' thru convulsions from dope shit I writ
Leavin' ni**as stuck, I let stick
Trapped up in a web of a ni**a that's sick
I'll wrap you up in cocoon, get caught up in the midst
A dangerous, it's risky business fuckin' with this
Contender number one I put you on top of the list
You're the best challenger so far, I'll give you this
But peep this (What?) fatal shots that solar plex
Man Down...now who dares to go next?
Like General Monk Monk orders to chop necks
I send a message to my whole clique to bomb shit
Atomic, no time for calm shit
We hyperactive when it’s time to Vietnam it
Ya whole alliance gets singlehandedly bombed-ed
Take heed to the Apostle's Warning
Word up!

*My plan is to write more on Mobb Deep instrumentals, this is just the start of it: and to write on the ones that get less attention, this is why I started with “Apostle’s Warning” here, so this is just an intro again for a project that’ll be returned to at some point.

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.



In 2010, Madlib set himself a challenge that ended up becoming the Medicine Show series. Thirteen albums, originally planned to come out each month via his archetypal reggae moniker Madlib Invazion over a period of just over a year. Odd months were to showcase original production, the evens mixes of other artists.

Chalice All-Stars (AKA Son of Super Ape) came out in April. Its promo material had a dope-smoking theme, while the title references Lee “Scratch” Perry. The tracklist didn’t name artists, but had names like “What Are The Medical Benefits of Smoking Marijuana?” Some were more loopy, for example: “Are a Lot of Pesticides on Pot?” The accompanying text read: “All Jamaican sounds. You’re tuning to your boss D.J. Madlib. Musical disc from the flick of his wrist to make you jump and twist. Madlib control the fullest. Roots. Rock. Reggae. Good stuff, as I would say.”

This reference to Madlib as DJ is key, not only because the first few seconds of Chalice All-Stars includes the word “DJ” as part of the intro, but also because of the way it encourages us to look again at the work’s conception and form.

Before listening to Chalice All-Stars, I had been spending a lot of time with Madlib’s stranger stuff, the hard to categorize projects like The Brain Wreck Show, Rock Konducta, and the adventurous—if more conventionally melodic—Black Soul mixtape and Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. Something about this “undefined” music clicked with me, especially since it upended any notion of Madlib’s production as straight-edge hip-hop style. I felt energized by the wild freedom the music contained.

My first take on the Chalice All-Stars mix was that it seemed a bit bland in comparison. There is not much variety in the mix. Songs come in, with the vocals providing the unifying element. Many of the singers (to my ears) sounded alike: lively in the style of Dillinger. Most, if not all of the artists were less known, with some exceptions: the aforementioned Dillinger, Jah Lion, Ranking Dread, and U-Roy. This was not a mix for a Saturday night to keep the crowd dancing, or a greatest hits. In fact, it was not very danceable at all (the songs changed too quickly). Not much was added in terms of effects, the mood was unchanging. Then I realized something…What Madlib was doing on the Chalice All-Stars mix was being a DJ, in a very pure sense; not a producer. The two roles are crucially different. Whereas a hip-hop producer’s talent can be gauged via their creation of music from divergent musical sources and making it appear seamless, a DJ’s role is to locate pieces of music that resemble each other in their original form, then place them side by side with the minimum of distraction, ergo Chalice All-Stars.

Rather than being a weakness, this now impressed me as a strength; imagine listening to music and hearing points of connection and commonality, despite their more obvious differences. Later, returning to some of Madlib’s other projects, particularly The Brain Wreck Show, I noticed the same thing. Disparate sounds and samples resembled each other in their original form.

The 2002 Blunted in Bomb Shelter release followed Trojan Records, giving Madlib the opportunity to delve into its artist roster then create a mix from its contents. According to the blurb from Rappcats:

“In 2002 some good folks who have the Trojan & Greensleeves catalog asked Madlib to make a mixtape of these classic reggae records. They sent him a huge box with every record they had. For about two months Madlib played these records, smoked trees, made hip-hop beats, and recorded with YNQ in his studio The Bomb Shelter. One night they called and said hey where’s the music, it’s overdue. Next morning this mixtape emerged from the cave.”

This mix was what I had expected Chalice All-Stars to sound like. (Here’s an artists’ tracklist). It’s radically shape-shifting and colored by the core dub aesthetic of stripping everything back to the essential elements of drum, bass, and effects. Drawing repeatedly on King Tubby, it included many of dub’s greatest artists and sounded like a classic recording from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Edges were kept messy. There was no through-line, the hand of the producer could be felt in the use of effects and external vocal samples. It was the very definition of flux and experimentation. It maintained the transcendental aspect of the dub version, while allowing for the human element to come through.

All this made it much easier for me to like it, as it corresponded with my preferences, but at the same time it bugged me a little. Until hearing it, I was so sure of my theory about Madlib as DJ and what this meant in terms of his work, and now that argument was in pieces. No complaint, as this refusal to be contained is, in the end, the only thing you can rely on when it comes to Madlib’s music. It is the only constant, his work’s core truth.

II.

(Version)

Dub traces can be heard in hip-hop, in the use of sound effects and elemental emphasis on the drums and bass. The exposure of sonic elements—the way drums are often heard in isolation or stop completely—similarly has a dub feel, but this might also reflect a debt to other black musical traditions, such as jazz or even disco.

The strongest connection between the genres are hip-hop instrumentals and the role of producers. Commonly-held perceptions of reggae, possibly shaped by the mass popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ non-political songs, rely on an image of the music as cheerful and bouncy, driven by a skanking rhythm: reggae as happy, feel-good party music. Some of it is, but of equal importance (and for me, greater importance) is the abstract side of dub found in the “versions.” Dub versions are the B-sides of a single where producers offer a pared-back take on the track with vocals. These tracks were often used as a surface for the DJ/MC to “toast,” or rap over. Such music is defined by the producer’s manipulation and placement of sounds, especially the way they position the vocals, treating them with effects such as reverb and delay to create an echo.

Here, the true art lies in the way the clinical production contrasts with other elements, say vocals that express warmth and vulnerability (or instruments, such as the melodica, an instrument that adds a difficult describe emotional charge: part longing, whimsy, and desire). Silence, too, is central as the elements appear and disappear. Hip-hop instrumentals frequently operate in a similar space, balancing hot and cold; the heat of a sentimental soul sample against the chill of programmed drums.

Yet despite these similarities, the influence of dub/reggae on hip-hop has never equalled that of funk, soul, or jazz. Throughout the 1990s/2000s, hip-hop artists referred to Rastafari in their lyrics, but deep engagement with dub/reggae in a profound musical sense is next to non-existent. (Of course, there are some famous nods to reggae to counter this: see Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” from 1995, the Ras Michael image borrowed by InI for their Center of Attention album sleeve).


Madlib’s “Return of the Loop Digga” from the 2000 album, The Unseen includes a skit with the producer checking out the stock of a record store. Opening it up, Madlib asks,“Would you happen to have any uhhh … Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff?”

“Never heard of him.” the record store guy replies..“Has he made any hits?”

“He ain’t got none of that.”

It’s yes to Grant Green, 1958 Blue Note Records, but no to Chick Corea Atlantic 1968.

Madlib asks,“Y’all got any reggae up in this piece or something?” The manager replies, “We have no reggae in here.”

Madlib asks, “Nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“Shit, I’m out.”

Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

Stay here for a minute, though, with this process of finding samples, of making something from unconnected sonic elements, from divergent time periods and recording methods. The challenge is combining not only the sounds of the music, but the sound of the studio it was recorded in. This process mimics memory and human experience, where the present is built on half-remembered instances and memory traces of our parents and other members of our family, or community.

Much of my current listening is underpinned by a small fight against an inclination to return to music I know, to get that reassurance, or discover a “rare/unreleased” version of a song etc. This reflex is inevitable when your playlist of favourites stretches back seven-plus decades, no exaggeration, and such perspective gives you the ability to see how great so much of it still is. Hip-hop, outside the better-known acts still offers up a lot of unexplored territory, which appeals for obvious reasons.

O my America! my new-found-land, 
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, 
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie, 
How blest am I in this discovering thee! 
To enter in these bonds, is to be free; 
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
— John Donne, "Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going To Bed" (1633/1654)

Instrumentals even more so. It also feels natural, this music. When I was younger and had a reasonable stereo set up and space (space, space) I was a collector of sorts (though nothing like the men who display their tens of thousands of records, something I find a little strange/obscene at times). I was someone who sought order in her knowledge and was serious in the quest. Then I sold my records one of the times I left Melbourne (I’ll never forget the record store guy checking not once, but twice if I was sure about whether or not I wanted to do this). Listening to instrumentals, trying to decipher them, uncovering the origins of the music, counting it down, skipping ahead to get a sense of the music’s internal logic is an extension of this earlier (earnest) self. Much the same could be done with an MC’s rhymes it’s true, but my desire is less, so I spend time with the music.

Because I like intellectual grids – infected after all these years living in France perhaps - when thinking about music and art, even if full of holes, here are three qualities that encourage me to listen to an instrumental the way through, or return to them: definition, development and the most appealing, of course, the catch-all “other,” which relates to the qualities of sounds and the sound in general. (This “other” is my get out of jail free card, as it will remain porous and open to multiple possibilities, it’s okay this is my story after all).

 

Definition reflects the way various elements are kept distinct in the music. I’m aware that this bias reflects my musical “education”, as the French would put it, in Australia where my teen years were immersed in nasty guitar-based music: 70s punk in all its facets, but mainly the music of my peers, my long-hair/shaven-scalp mostly male contemporaries, the antipodean/U.S. descendants of Detroit’s pre-punk exponents, The Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and their Australian counterparts, Radio Birdman or The Saints. Such music is all about definition as impact, with the guitar/drums nexus seeking to impress and destroy, stun and overwhelm.

Subtlety, to a degree, might be found in the guitarist’s solo, or when the drummer unfurls tricky moves briefly, but this was not the principal aim. Loud, intense, sharply defined, with a melody (in parts) was preferred. Guitar and other solos were mocked, if they burst forth they needed to be clipped (releasing Angus/Ron’s spirit for it to be just as quickly rebottled). Then, my attention shifted to dub, which is sustained by definition and the search for pure sound, the best recording, just as you’d expect from a genre built by DJs, producers and engineers. Jazz is more nuanced in terms of these comments, some of it is angular and defined, but a lot of it the very opposite, focussed on creating atmospheres and seamless transitions between instrumental parts; on transmitting the spiritual nature of music in performance.

The relevance of this is that my preference is for hip-hop beats where there is space/distance between the elements, and it’s not too mushy-mellifluous. Not too much though, if a beat is only edges and exaggerated drums, it quickly palls, which leads to the other criteria: the need for development, alongside this mysterious other, the marker of the music’s voice. Note that I’m making a distinction between sounds of instruments and samples of vocalists that are allowed to run long here, I like it when the individual sounds of instruments are distinct. One of my real aversions – this certainly reflects punk origins – are instrumentals with highlighted R&B vocal cuts, all those smooth-lady type samples. If there’s that crinkly static effect, tinkly piano, a ‘60s soul voice and prominent drums, cliché-city, off it goes.

Development in hip-hop is more complex, contested. The usual purpose of an instrumental is to provide the background, the foundations for the rapper’s voice; this, you’d think then would go against the idea of the provider offering anything too complex, in that it carries the risk of obscuring the rhymes, making it messy. But from the earliest days, with all those “basic” hip-hop beats the best producers always allowed for development, or moments of brief, subtle change in the music. This then became more dramatic, with the beat switches where the instrumental would be cut in half, or into parts as the music went in a completely different direction.

Non-development, the repetition of a sample on loop whether part of a beat or the entire thing is also interesting: especially in the way it corresponds with theoretical ideas about the African origins of Black American music (something I’m still learning about, but the argument seems to be that this music follows circular, rather than linear notions of “development” and that this comes from musical traditions from West Africa). Recently I’ve also noticed producers making beats where there is no obvious development, or song structure as might have been the case in the 90s Golden Era, where the beat battles against the voice, as a wall of noise. I like this too, even if it runs counter to my argument.

Development refers to an internal logic, the way the beat is constructed. Often it's to the point that you can count it by 30 second intervals, as if it were a classic pop or Soul/R&B song. At those moments something shifts in the music, a sonic element is added, there is some kind of internal echo. Development might also mean that the music has a thematic aspect, maybe via the return to a skit at the start via a sample. Whatever it is, the music is not the same thing on repeat unless this is an intentional part of its design, as mentioned above: the music moves, transforms, keeps its energy.

As for the final “other” - as mentioned this is the most elastic of the three, on purpose. It could cover the sound quality in general, does the recording sound rich/full or tinny/hollow? Equally it might relate to the sounds themselves. Without any scientific evidence to support this in any way shape or form, I have a theory that we have our own internally coded preferences for certain sounds, as if enmeshed in our DNA. Sure, this reflects our formative listening – as I explored above – and especially that period when we’re aged 10-12 or so when it gets instilled in our system for the rest of our lives. This means that when we hear this music, or music that resembles it in some way it’s easier for us to both get it and like it.

But I think it goes deeper than this in some ways: there are certain sound qualities that we connect with, as if it makes manifest something of who we are as people. This is one of the reasons why I find all those discussions about the “best” MC/producer etc in hip-hop culture so banal; I might like this piece of music, but who says that this extremely personal preference has any relevance to another person’s listening tastes? By all means talk about relative quality, just don't make claims that it is the greatest of all time because you like it.

Speaking personally then, the instrumentals that make me stop are the ones that have a mysterious or risk-taking quality to them – not necessarily the “quiet” I’ve written about before in terms of 90s NY beats – but something exciting about the choice of the samples (odd, unexpected, beautiful), or the way they are put together. I know that sounds woolly, but it’s intended to be. You can’t break down the effect of music as if it were a mathematical problem to be solved, even though I remember seeing a writer once attempt to do just that.

Recently I was speaking with a (Gestalt-grounded) analyst who was saying how there is a new strain of sociology or anthropology which had as its starting point: the psychological space of the researcher, asking questions about how that person was feeling at that very moment they conducted that research into the experience of others. As any honest writer knows this is applicable to how we work as well; music criticism is no different.

There is some music that I’ve listened to over and over and over again during periods of my life that I later returned to and wondered how and why it spoke to me so much before. Nothing about the music had changed, including its quality: rather something inside me had, most probably a need had been met in a way I was not able to articulate. None of this means that the music has lost its value, in some respects this music remains even more precious because it is associated with that time of need.

The reason why I’m mentioning this is to again make a claim for partial, humble criticism especially relating to music, in this case hip-hop. This writing is also an extended intro for pieces I’m going to write on the work on producers/instrumentals on an intermittent basis on this site and I hope elsewhere depending on interest; the last thing I’d like is for it to be seen as a list of my all-time best (that’d make me retch). That I listen to one artist more than another says nothing about achievement, more a desire to keep some structure in a mind that goes in all directions. And as I’ve said countless times, I’m a recent arrival to this musical/cultural space, it’s not my country. I’m a student here, as the notes jotted in small note-books/diaries with names of artists/tracks written on multi-coloured Post-its all around my living-room attest. 

“Sundance” - an essay on Jeanne Lee

We’re talking about our work at a roof-top bar in the 11th arrondissement where you can see Sacré-Coeur in the distance. The woman teases me with light humour and kindness about the emphasis of my writing; she says that she plans on returning to Senegal, the country where her father was born to find work in an organisation that makes connections between Dakar and Paris. Recently she says she attended a conference about “women in jazz.” No, no, she says laughing in response to the expression on my face, it was interesting, really.

"Jazz is a music that combines so many opposites ... You have to find that balance, then you have a guideline between freedom and discipline, between rhythm and melody, between body and spirit, between mind and instinct."

"I feel the music like a dance, I think it's an important part of the music, it has to be felt like a dance."

Jeanne Lee  

 

Few jazz singers, or singers of any genre, could capture the same emotional depth with such ease, as self-described "a jazz singer, poet/lyricist, composer/improvisor” Jeanne Lee who died aged 61 in Mexico, 2000. Compassion, tenderness, levity and freedom can be heard in her voice. More than anything else, even from her earliest recordings and performances with Ran Blake in the 1960s, Jeanne Lee sounds at peace with herself.

Recently I’ve been ruminating about how our sense of our own identities as women, even as the years pass, is shaped by how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we think about ourselves in terms of how others see us (self as performance, performance as self). I am grateful to Jeanne Lee for the way she seems to have found a way through all this, as an artist she sounds free.

None of this was by chance. Lee’s artistry emanated from her conscious exploration of the limits and potential of performance and improvisation, to give voice to her musical gift and experience as an artist and as a Black woman in the United States (and Europe). Yet in the later years of her life, Lee expressed frustration that she didn’t have so many recordings to her name (a consequence of raising children, she said) and that the multi-faceted nature of her achievement had not been recognised.

Within jazz, Eric Porter writes on his insightful essay “Jeanne Lee’s voice”  - first published in Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 2, No 1 (2006) and then People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now! (2013) - critics often encouraged a binary opposition between the jazz vocalist (woman) with the jazz musician (man/artist).

Yet as Porter notes, Lee’s work upset this binary opposition in various ways. First and perhaps most importantly, Lee challenged conventions of what a singer is via her particular brand of improvisation, her use of her voice as an “instrument.” But her innovative re-interpretation of standards and the way she positioned herself as a singer within the group are also important, I’d suggest. In one interview Lee stressed that she was not an add-on, the called-in singer, but a musician of equal importance to the others on stage. She performed alongside them.

Porter writes:

"By disrupting the close relationship between jazz singing and the feminized sphere of popular vocal music, and by bringing a level of technical virtuosity to their work, (Abbey) Lincoln and Lee challenged the idea that female vocal jazz artists, while an important element of the jazz tradition, did not quite measure up to the artistry and genius of male instrumentalists and were a secondary class of performers.

That Lee was able to disrupt this dichotomous juxtaposition of female vocalist bodies with male instrumentalist minds is evident in the critical responses to her by some European jazz writers who commended her improvisational skills. As one of them put it: “Miss Lee, as far as I know, is the first to fulfil 100 percent what most jazz singers wish for in their dreams --namely a complete disregard of the former borderline between the human voice and an improvising horn.”

Two points to make here: my aim is not to “recover” Jeanne Lee as part of a feminist project, even if that might be a worthwhile task, I am not the woman, or person to write it (and besides, those who know about jazz already hold her in high esteem, obviously). Second, to understand her significance as a Black woman and artist, I’d recommend Porter’s essay, particularly for the way it situates Lee’s work within her broader cultural and political context, while being acutely alert to what makes her art so distinctive then and now.

I particularly appreciated the way Porter detailed Lee’s own perception of her work and its importance, see, for example, how in the late 1970s she referred to herself as a “voice environmentalist,” as quoted in Porter’s essay:

"I look at myself as already an environment, the environment is there and it comes through me in sound. In turn the music is created as a total environment to the audience. I’m always trying to allow the environment to manifest itself through me [. . .] when I’m working with a musician I’m trying to deal with the sound. When I want to direct the music I create a poem and then there’s a more deliberate environmental frame and we all work within that."

This self-perception corresponded with work by her contemporaries, such as Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, who Porter writes shared a “Black Arts Movement commitment to community-building through creative educational projects while recognizing the limitations of narrowly conceived identity politics and the necessity of creative exchanges across cultural and national boundaries.”

Seeing herself and her art as part of an “environment” reflected her desire to create work that was not hierarchical, but depended on the interpretation of the audience for its meaning in a way that echoed the Fluxes ethos, and Happenings as as well as that of Black American “AACM and multi-instrumentalist Marion Brown, on whose Afternoon of a Georgia Faun Lee performed”

Porter’s essay begins with Ntozake Shange’s evocation of a 1981 performance by Jeanne Lee at Soundscape, New York:

On 52nd Street I realized Jean [sic] Lee is clothed and fed by her voice. That’s the same street my aunts and uncles were born and black on, so 52nd and 10th means something to me – like a people who come out with what they can carry: love, sweat, blood and song. Though everything we know is wonderful and rich, we, as a people, hide, to keep it safe. Jean Lee don’t. [. . .] Aretha addresses God, Billie Holiday seduced him. Tina Turner made the devil think twice/but Jean Lee is mingling among us. [. . .] She is not afraid of all this body that moves so sweet I dare you/ and isn’t this more than you ever imagined; her body is song. [. . .] We got a woman among us who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice. She might lay up nights, wondering how are we staying alive ‘cause we didn’t hear what she just heard/or sing it. Well. Did I hear the congregation say Amen.
She sings.
Jean Lee/She sings

Porter's analysis hinges on the striking collaboration between Lee, Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons from 1979, “In These Last Days" from Nuba released by Black Saint Records:

Porter notes how Lee’s poetry prefaced her identity as an artist, a Black woman and a mother.

 

In these Last Days

                                                                of Total

Dis-in-te-gra-tion,

                                                                 where every day

Is a struggle

                                                                against becoming

An object in

                                                                someone else’s

                                                                                nightmare:

There is great joy

                                                                 in being

Naima’s Mother

                                                                and unassailable strength

In being

               on the Way

 

Porter writes: “The words/lyrics “these Last Days/ of Total/ Dis-in-te-gration/ where every day/ Is a struggle/ against becoming/An object in/ someone else’s/ nightmare” are improvised and repeated in different registers, across varying ranges of intervals. There is particular focus on the word “struggle,” which is elongated and distorted, ultimately becoming a scream.”

But there is also optimism to be found here, as Porter notes, in the final lines when Lee mention the “great joy” to be found in her role as mother, as well as the notion of transformation.

What strikes me about Jeanne Lee’s work in the 1960s particularly is how modern (and radical) it still sounds. The poetry she performs on Archie Shepp’s 1969 "Blasé” is astounding, her debt to Abbey Lincoln can be sensed in her delivery, but the intensity and the content of her verse have no obvious point of comparison.

Spoken-word before it existed, a revolutionary poetics with a disassembled soundtrack: one woman’s lament, a deconstructed Song of Songs, held close.

Musically, it breaks convention just as you would expect from Shepp, but the drumming in particular by Philly Joe Jones stuns for its broken, unexpected counterpoint. (Note the small error in the lyrics transcription in the video: “I gave you a loaf of sugar and you took my womb till it runs.”)

II.

“Soul Eyes”

"A soul, I'm told Can be both hot and cold/So how is one to know Which way to go?/ The soul is mirrored in the eyes/But how is one to know When the whole world is full of such lies?/So darling, watch those eyes And even more, those lies/And when you see them smile/For a long, long while Then you know you've found the one/ Who'll always, always be true I know, that it is how I found you"

From Mal Waldron: Soul Eyes (BMG, 1997)

From After Hours (Owl, 1994)

III.

In an interview Jeanne Lee recalled how she first met Ran Blake at Bard College, “I met Ran the first day I was in college, I heard this sound, we were all standing in line to get our classes, we were all freshmen, the sound was Ran Blake playing the piano in the Chapel. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Winning the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night competition led to an album contract with RCA, The Newest Sound Around and a tour in Europe, where as the New Music USA obituary quotes Ran Blake: “She created such a sensation – they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.”

But if you listen to Lee’s 1966 recording of the standard “Night and Day”

her expressive, experimental leanings can be heard, in a way that differs strongly from the classic Billie Holiday recording of 1939. There are similarities, certainly, in the phrasing (both singers emphasise words you wouldn’t expect, for example, “are” as in “you are the one”) but the differences are marked. Whereas Holiday’s performance is all about her remarkable voice, especially in that moment it becomes fragile when she sings of her “hungry yearning” for her absent love, it remains contained and extremely controlled, her signature as an artist.

In contrast, the Jeanne Lee performance is radically exposed, as she breaks down the song into parts, greatly assisted by Ran Blake's piano accompaniment. If you listen to their approximate contemporaries – Helen Merrill in 1961 or Anita O’Day  in 1959, or Ella Fitzgerald in 1956 – you can hear how different their approach is. Whereas Merrill, O’Day, Fitzgerald keep the “swing” of the song, the original speed and verve of it, the Jeanne Lee version, which was released on Free Standards: Stockholm, 1966 is slowed down dramatically, and kept expressionistic as if she is daubing colours of paint, playing with sonic fragments. It’s all about the purity of the sound, the phrasing. (Also on the album two very surprising, if sexy/sensual, covers of Beatles’ songs: “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket to Ride”).

This style of singing is relatively common today, so it’s difficult to imagine how new this would have been to the audiences of the era. That said Ran Blake’s highly expressive style of playing the piano still sounds brave decades on. Listen to this similarly wonderful version of “A Taste of Honey” from the same album:

Or “Summertime” from her RCA début with Blake, The Newest Sound Around from 1961

Notice just before 1’30” when Blake kicks into it as if it were some kind of raw honky tonk piano groove, counter to the typical approach of holding back and being “respectful” (see Mal Waldron, or Tommy Flanagan or any of the other greats in this regard) to the vocalist. You would expect that this would be obtrusive, but in fact it works perfectly with Lee’s deeply harmonious vocal style, adding some definition and perhaps encouraging her also to develop more of an edge to her delivery.

Needless to say the above Lee/Blake interpretation from the “Jazz on the Screen” footage is light years away from the Sondheim/Bernstein original from West Side Story (1961).

Found in this performance are the roots of her more experimental vocal work/interpretations. Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary that Lee had two radically different styles and that the first was “dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.” Lee, in fact, cited Abbey Lincoln as an important early influence, you can hear this particularly in her performance of “Summertime” above.

As Eric Porter writes:

"One of the striking things about the album is Lee’s engagement with Abbey Lincoln’s music. Lee’s vocal inflections resemble Lincoln’s and she builds upon Lincoln’s explorations of the instrumental qualities of the voice through improvised, non-verbal vocal lines. Lee also performs at the session material written and/or included by Lincoln on her own 1961 album Straight Ahead: Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” for which Lincoln had written lyrics; the Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron composition “Left Alone”; and the title track, with words by Lincoln and music by Waldron."

During these sessions Lee also recorded "Straight Ahead” – the title track of Lincoln’s foundational 1961 album, the song written by Lincoln, Earl Baker and Mal Waldron. Porter writes:

"Lincoln’s work on Straight Ahead represented a critical moment in her flight from the musical and ideological baggage associated with material available to jazz singers. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Lincoln made an effort to move away from romantic ballads that spoke of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual relationships; she began performing material which described healthier relationships between men and women, provided varying degrees of social commentary, and demanded a more “instrumental” approach to singing. Moreover, Lincoln’s shift in material also spoke to her commitment to the mutual liberation of black men and women in the political context of the black freedom movement."

Jeanne Lee was explicit about her creative debt to Lincoln and respect for her work, as quoted in Porter's essay: 

"The person who left the most impression on me in terms of life-situations as well as what she was doing with her voice was Abbey Lincoln. From the credibility of her craft and her own reality and not so much as a “style.” It was like using the energy as a painting. Billie Holiday too, but she comes from another era, Billie has the same kind of thing musically, but Abbey advances that type of understanding, [. . .] Abbey is more human, it’s not just a woman who’s a victim of her role. Again speaking about Lincoln, Lee said: “this woman made it possible for me to have faith in the fact that I am a poet and I did not have to sing standards in order to be a jazz singer. I could find a way of putting my own perception into musical terms”

***

Personnel: Allan Praskin, clarinet (B2) Perry Robinson, clarinet (B2) Mark Whitecage, alto clarinet (B2) Jack Gregg, bass Steve McCall, drums Gunter Hampel, flute, piano, vibraphone, alto and bass clarinet Sam Rivers, soprano and tenor saxophone, flute Marty Cook, trombone (B2) Ensemble tracks recorded by George Klabin, Sound Ideas Studio, New York, February 1974.

No words, only a feeling
No questions, only a life
No sequence, only a being
No journey, only a dance

Here is some more from Ben Ratliff’s New York Times obituary:

"Because Ms. Lee performed in two radically different styles, her singing was difficult to categorize. One of her voices was dry, slow and breathy, influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

In 1961 she and a classmate from Bard College, the pianist Ran Blake, performed as a duo at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night contest. They won, and the album they later recorded, ''The Newest Sound Around'' (later reissued on CD as ''The Legendary Duets''), has remained a cult favourite.

In jazz standards and Thelonious Monk tunes on the album, Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake subtracted swing, but added intellectual coolness, abstruse piano harmonies and vocal influences from Holiday and Washington; the record is a series of minimalist dreams. (In 1989 she and Mr. Blake recorded a duet album in the same style, ''You Stepped Out of a Cloud.'')

In her other vocal style, Ms. Lee approached words as sounds; this voice was harsh and booming, and she used her teeth, lips and tongue to wring drama out of each syllable, presaging singers like Diamanda Galas. In the mid-1960's she was a multidisciplinary artist, writing music with members of the Fluxus school like Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins, and gradually becoming more aligned with the rest of the late-1960's avant-garde in jazz."

While it is true that some of Jeanne Lee's work in the 70s particularly played with conventional song construction, I don’t recognise the “harsh and booming” quality that Ratliff refers to above as being a key element of Jeanne Lee’s work, if anything there is a lilting softness which reoccurs in various ways. See, for example, the wonderfully playful “Angel Chile” from her Conspiracy record (Earthforms Records, 1974).

Or what might be my favourite piece of music of hers, “Your Ballad” from the same album:

Where to begin with this music, with its capacity to hold on to apparent opposites and make them cohere, the simple joy and excitement that plays against deep contentment, music that is slow and leisurely and impatient at the same time: the sweetness of it all.

Added to this are the various personalities of the instruments providing the foundations for Lee’s remarkable vocal performance. The ponderous and heavy nature of the bass line and I’m not sure which part it is, most probably the alto clarinet, but it sounds like horns that suggests partial movement, but instead circles as if waiting for direction from the vocalist. Then just before two minutes in it stops to build once more; something similar occurs three minutes later. There is such beauty in this music, each time I hear it it touches my heart.

There are too certainly too echoes of the standard “Lover Man” in this song, the un-sung melody of “where can you be?“which Lee recorded with Ran Blake on her first album, in a typically personal style:

To finish, here is a live performance of Jeanne Lee from 1970, performing with her husband and musical collaborator Gunter Hampel:

(This essay is dedicated to the memory of my late mother and my sister, neither of whom listened to jazz. Jeanne Lee’s music has recently helped me in my efforts to come to terms with their absence ... and to all those seeking solace in music)

Related article: Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln published 8 July, 2018

for other pieces of writing on Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and jazz, follow the tags

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

Interview (part 1) with Out Da Box TV, 2012

You often don't have drums or have minimal drums in your tracks. Why is this? 

Roc Marciano: For me as an MC I enjoy the space. Sometimes the drums, you know, the program I feel like it takes over the groove and doesn’t allow me the same space. A track with no drums gives me the space to do more.

I want to talk to you about "Tent City," could you talk about it in more detail? It's an extremely intense track. 

Roc Marciano: “Tent City” yeah, I just knew when I found it, immediately I knew I wanted to do something with it, I thought the sample was real ill with the horn in the background, and I was reading Miles Davis when I was making the album so a lot of the horns are sticking out, they’re like the most important sounds. It’s like a mixture of soul and jazz, I really enjoyed making that track.

It’s a totally different sound for a hip-hop song, were you conscious of the fact you were doing something so new?

Roc Marciano: Nah, not really, I mean usually I’m just doing what I want to do I don’t really care if it’s new or not, I’m always trying to keep pushing myself and trying to find more inspiration, doing the same thing is boring, so it’s interesting to find stuff like that.

You seem to be quite intuitive the way you work, you often use the word “organic” when describing your work process and said once you “don’t like to force music.” What did you mean by that?

Roc Marciano: I don’t like to make music “just because,” you know, ‘cause I get bored. I have to feel it, I’m always looking for stuff, you know, that makes me want to be creative, it’s not just me it’s also the music, we’re doing it together, so that when I get music that touches me it makes the process a lot smoother.

It’s still primarily sample-based, isn’t it, you’re not using live instrumentation?

Roc Marciano: No, I’m not but I’d like to start. I’m going to use live instrumentation in the future.

I saw in an interview that you said you’d love to work with musicians. You mentioned Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes as inspirations. All these great artists from the '70s. Talk to me a little bit more about that. 

Roc Marciano: Well, you know, I really admire those musicians, those artists made some music that’ve done a lot to inspire me, so I feel like to pick it up where they left off that’d be a great thing. That’s some of the greatest music ever made in my opinion, I would love to be able to follow in their foot-steps.

Something else I really like about your work is that you place the samples in a really creative way, the vocals are really low in the mix a lot of the time and there’s a very, very strong contrast between the vocals and the music. You’re also often leaving the samples quite raw, they’re not mixed to merge with each other. How conscious is all of this when you’re making your music?

Roc Marciano: I’m conscious … I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, when you hear it that way it’s mainly me creating music, you know and still having fun, I try to make sure that I’m still having fun. Me doing it the way I want to do it allows me to keep having fun.

When you’re listening to Funkadelic, and artists like this, are you thinking about how they positioned the sounds in their music?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much what I am doing. I don’t want to mess up anything, my goal is to work with the sounds from the samples. I feel that what they were doing was already live and dangerous enough, all I’ve got to do is get in the middle.

Can you speak to me about the song “C.V.S” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: My guy Don Cee made that beat, I feel like that’s a continuation of what I was already doing, it’s a progression, when I heard it I was like that’s definitely going to fit in with what I’m doing. I think that track is real ill.

Let’s talk about the producers who have worked on the album with you. The guys from Arch Druids have come back to work on this. You’re quite a loyal collaborator, you have guys you work with repeatedly, they have been working with you a long, long time. What is it about those producers that you admire so much?

Roc Marciano; I mean we all see eye to eye with what we’re trying to do musically and we’ve been working together for so long, over the years, they’re like brothers you know, it’s like you continue to make music with your family, you know, you’re in your comfort zone you get better results that way.

You’ve also got Action Bronson, Knowledge the Pirate on the album. Do they feel close to you like family as well?

Roc Marciano; Yeah, definitely but not only that it’s cause it’s fun, everyone is where they’re at because that’s where they belong, like I was saying earlier it’s organic.

Your music often has dramatic shifts in your music, often about half way through a track it completely changes direction. What are you aiming for here?

Roc Marciano: To keep it fun, I don’t want to bore the listener, it’s already hard to keep it entertaining when it’s just one man and one voice, so to keep it entertaining you have to have all those elements in it to surprise you, so it’s not just my voice over and over and I’m not just rapping and rapping through the whole project.

Could you speak about Alchemist? You’ve done lots of work together and I read how he’s been important as a supporter keeping you going when you at one point were thinking about stopping music. How has he influenced you and your work?

Roc Marciano: I always just thought that Al was dope, you know what I’m saying. He’s a good friend, not to mention, but you know he’s just super ill. I knew of him before we started working on Reloaded, I was always just a fan, you know, I admire his work ethic, he’s a beast.

Some time back you chose five beats/hip-hop tracks that were your favorites, all were from the late 80s/early 90s (Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’”, EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out”, Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You T.R.O.Y” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”). How would you compare your style with that of the Golden Era MCs from New York?

Roc Marciano: Probably in terms of the lyricism, you know the way I focus on the lyricism, with my lyrics I’m pushing the culture forward lyrically you know on from what the guys in the ‘90s were doing, in the Golden Era that was considered to be a big part of making music.

You’ve said that you think it’s important to update your style from what the MCs were doing back then, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Pushing it forward, making it better and better and to improve, so that’s pretty much what I mean by updating it, by updating it you are constantly improving it. It’s like an operating system on a computer, even though you buy a new computer it’s constantly updating the operating system so the computer runs better. I feel like that’s what I do with the music myself, you know, the style and production and choice of samples, just keep improving.

What’s interesting about your lyricism is that you have lots of images, you layer them and focus on setting the scene, not really story-telling so much. You’ve talked about how you’d love to work with DOOM and mentioned Kool Keith as an influence. Have those two MCs inspired your lyricism?

Roc Marciano: I would definitely say Kool Keith, I’m a fan of DOOM, I caught on to DOOM late, I was already doing what I was doing. As far as Kool Keith, he’s definitely somebody who inspired my style. DOOM I was like as soon as I heard his music, yeah, this dude is ill.

Kool Keith has a similar style to you in some ways, in terms of layering lots of words that rhyme together that are kind of absurd or surreal. What do you think?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah, I always thought that Kool Keith was pushing the feeling of being in an uncomfortable state and I liked that.

What do you mean by an “uncomfortable state”?

Roc Marciano: Not doing the same thing over and over, if you keep doing the same thing, if you keep picking the same beat over and over that dates, a lot of people are like that beat’s hard - that’s hard, that’s hard, well that (attitude) dates. I would like people to hear songs and be like that’s kind of strange, what’s that? That’s what I mean by being uncomfortable.

Which song from Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 would you say conveys that feeling?

Roc Marciano: Most of the album from “Tent City” to “Kill You” to “C.V.S” so many, it’s not like every day hip-hop you know what I’m saying? A lot of it is strange, risky, edgy.

Thinking about New York now, the city is extremely important for you in terms of your work and what you do, you grew up in Hempstead, Long Island you have said you can hear it in my music, it’s in my blood, growing up there it was a place with a lot struggle and a lot of love. Can you talk about where you grew up and how it connects with your work?

Roc Marciano: Well, I grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. It’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I feel like wherever you come from it’s going to be a huge influence, it’s like your culture. It’s pretty much all I know so that’s why it feeds into my music. It’s like anybody else’s hometown would influence their art.

You’ve said that this place had a rich culture, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Everything, from the people from Long Island hip-hop culture, from Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, you know what I’m saying, and just the people it was like a melting-pot of people from all these different places, especially in my area, it was definitely interesting, very rich.

You’ve said that you’d love to work with Ghostface Killah. What is it about his work that impresses you so much?

Roc Marciano: It’s super ill, man, you know, super ill – from the stories, some of my favorite bodies of work come from that brother, Supreme Clientele, Iron Man, you know, he’s a monster of an artist.

When you were asked who you would like to do a full album with, you said Cormega …

Roc Marciano: Yeah, definitely I’ve always been a big fan, we have worked together, and we’ve got more work that’s yet to come out, definitely somebody I’ve always admired as a lyricist, it seems pretty natural to me.

One thing that’s really great on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge is the way the songs are placed side by side, how they work together. When you are creating a record what’s running through your mind in terms of what you want to achieve?

Roc Marciano: Just to make a great body of music that’s always the plan, it never changes, no theme or concept would ever change the aim to make an album that sounds good from beginning to the end.

You often say how important it is for you to develop as an artist and to progress, how do you think that this record is a development in terms of the first Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: As I say I think everything’s improved from the beats to the rhymes, everything is improving.

In a melancholy mood: On hip-hop quiet and instrumental music

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published "In Praise of Shadows," an essay that recognized “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather … that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”
  
Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the musical genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the 90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call hip-hop quiet.      

Tanizaki’s essay made a big impression on me when I read it many years ago and then stayed in my mind as I started listening to hip-hop again, seeking out artists that I had frequently never heard of, largely by chance online. Most of my attention was given to generally little-known, obscure instrumentals by East Coast artists from the 90s.  Something about this music touched me, especially its emphasis on mood and the way it upset expectations. In a culture that so often celebrates display and boasting, this music was introspective, private and (often) had a sweetness to it.

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere,” Tanizaki wrote. “When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses.”

Certainly, this introspective quality is not confined to these instrumentals, running alongside them are examples from better-known producers [from Pete Rock, Nujabes, J Dilla, for example] who created music of delicacy, refinement and grace in the same period or later. Yet, the fact that these instrumentals exist in a kind of parallel universe, are not widely known or appreciated is central to their appeal in this context. 

The music of the celebrated producers, moreover, is marked by the character of their makers; it has a confidence and logic, or design behind it, so that you can recognize the artist’s voice immediately when you hear the music. In contrast, the output of these frequently forgotten producers is lo-fi, naïve, basic in its technique while operating in a hard to define space within the culture and as music. 

Madlib, possibly, is a producer with feet in both camps; interested in keeping his beats “unfinished,” conscious of the power of keeping elements unfiltered and material, and yet there is a self-awareness (and often humor) in his music that makes it different in tone. 

When speaking of this ‘quiet,’ I’d prefer to keep it open to interpretation, other than to note that this music for me is defined by emptiness and mystery. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense of no form, no clear organizing pattern that corresponds with our expectations about musical development, enacted via the use of stasis and repetition.    

One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop production is the way individual sounds are often more important than melody or development. This reflects a debt to jazz, where the interplay between the individual and the group is made manifest in a focus on sounds in isolation, distorting them, twisting and shaping them to return to the key refrain. Jazz solos are one instance when this happens.        

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop then you need to strip away the elements, to break it down, as we will see here in these instrumentals they’ve already done much of the stripping away for you. The music also represents non-movement, a refusal to connect in a way that might offer comfort to the listener. In effort to explore this further, let’s consider three instrumentals to see how their bare aesthetic creates a unique sound, as examples of hip-hop quiet.

I. Onyx, “Last Dayz,”  (produced by Fredro Starr; Def Jam Records, 1995)

Take Onyx’s, “Last Dayz” from 1995, for example. The repeated vocal sample transforms into a sound in an unknown language, similar to how in UK electronic act Burial’s 2007 song “Near Dark’’, a warping of sampled words takes place, weaving in and out of almost naked drums. This brings us back to the quality of emptiness. Perhaps you could make connections with minimalism, but to me that word lacks the emotion this instrumental conveys. 

Particularly striking is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds—the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring swirl and comfort of the bass-line, the stop-start effect between them that operates like a conversation. Then, around two minutes in, the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops and then restarts, broken and then returning to the center? The beat is following its own poetic logic, exposing an emptiness at its core. To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own space, listen to the track with vocals: 

Underneath the bombast of the lyrics, all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery, or emptiness.

II. Miilkbone, “Keep it Real” (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success. A commercial failure can become prized, simply for it’s rarity; an obscure sample can reawaken an interest in—and even reinvent the artistry of— musical trash from the past. The music is shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn. 

Little-known samples operate as a code between producers and fans, separating those who recognize their esoteric sources from those who don’t. Fans striving to pick out even the most niche samples their favorite producers deploy turn sample-hunting into a serious pastime. The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to sample-hunting) due to copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space. 

All of this explains how Miilkbone—the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his LP Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later)—can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best “one hit wonders”, Miilkbone's “Keep It Real” has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the twenty-first century. Produced by Mufi, the track’s distinctive mood has kept it alive.

Central to the singular nature of this instrumental is Mufi's skilful and imaginative use of a sample from “Melancholy Mood,” the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio. Have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here.

As with the Onyx instrumental, the elemental simplicity of “Keep It Real” is what makes it so powerful. The music is carried by a lack of adornment; the sounds in their pure form can breathe. Much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates in so much contemporary “soul-based” production—where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism or the MC's delivery in the process)—is side-stepped.

This quiet is also found in the sharp contrast of the beat’s sounds. There’s the insistent and jagged horn sample, the piano on a constant repeat. They create a false naïveté to the music, which is affecting. Simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. Again, the strange kind of non-momentum is present—that stop-start—so the song often seems to be on the cusp of development. 

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own internal space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the MC.

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it on the Stretch and Bobbito show the same year it was released. It has been used in a BET awards ceremony and by various MCs.

Most importantly though, almost two decades later Freddie Gibbs repurposed the beat in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repeatedly chants the song's title—“The Ghetto,” over and over— echoing the original jagged sample embedded in the instrumental. Gibb’s subject matter, the sample, and overall sound of Mufi’s beat becoming one.  

By using this sample Gibbs and his producer are asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone cut, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

III. The Speedknots, “The Zone” (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998) 
 
As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious, with little or no development. It starts suddenly three seconds in, with all the effects brought in at the same time, then follows an almost mathematical precision of 30 second intervals. At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, and then at 2 minutes there is a perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop Joseph Schloss explores the idea of “ambiguity” in hip-hop production. Schloss relates ambiguity to the “idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded.” He writes: “Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

Earlier, Schloss explains that the very nature of creating sample-based music out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates the sounds in their original form and then how they are recreated. He writes that the, “aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities [the fact that the music is live and also not live], but –quite the contrary—to preserve, master, and celebrate them.”

Ambiguity here refers to an unclear meaning or to multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make you think, they make you feel. Central to this is the stop-start of the beat alongside a strong emotion of longing; none of this makes this music soft or sentimental, quite the reverse. 

Not so long ago, I read a commentator argue that he felt that the intellectual component of Black American culture is often downplayed and dismissed. This surprised me as someone who returned to hip-hop after listening to jazz for many years. As any jazz fan knows, the intersection between the mystical/the intellectual/the political is central to the genre, from the 60s onwards, with no issue or complication. 

Thinking about these instrumentals in terms of their quiet, their emptiness and darkness, is one way of recognizing their achievement, while making connections with other cultural moments, whether it is an essay on Japanese aesthetics or Spiritual Jazz, or whatever it might be. And yet, there is something unique about these instrumentals, indelibly located in a time and place, which makes them timeless.   

I-Control (Audio Collage): an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2 

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2017)

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Such blurring of apparent contradictions flows into other spheres as well; it is hard to imagine another country where a a revered President (François Mitterrand) who was seen as a great intellect and built imposing monuments to his greatness and the greatness of French culture might also regularly consult with a psychic who gave him advice on the timing of international meetings. 

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

(Time spent trying to work out the significance of Sylvester, the character best-known for his lisp and chasing Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales, hasn’t led to any real insight on my part. And then after publishing this essay, I rewatched La Haine. In the film the three main characters debate which of the three cartoon characters are the toughest to decide on Sylvester because he's a 'black brother').   

Alchemist’s two-decade-plus career similarly contains such sharp tonal shifts, moving from the classicism of his early production with Prodigy on H.N.I.C, part 2 from 2008 to the recent Gangrene partnership with Oh No that is built on the innovative use of foreign samples.

In 2017, Alchemist put out seven releases; the Fantasy Island EP with Jay Worthy; The Good Book, Volume 2 (2017) (with Budgie) and an EP with Canadian producer, Lunice called Moving Parts as well as a number of limited edition vinyl “45s under the Craft Singles rubric.  Of interest here are the four instrumental albums: Rapper's Best Friend 4 and three projects with a Francophone focus: the French Blend records and Paris x LA x Bruxelles in September.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, Paris x LA x Bruxelles saw Alchemist team up with a crew of 12 French-language rappers and was subtitled “one producer, three cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert.” On its release I wrote the following comment in an article for Ambrosia For Heads: “For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix” while noting its ludic spirit of experimentation.

When asked what he thought about crowds in Paris in a 2015 interview the day after a show at La Bellevilloise with Brand New Hip Hop, Alchemist replied this way: 

“Amazing, I miss DJ-ing, best crowd, man, the rowdiest liveliest crowd, they call that sh*t ‘turning up, right?’ Paris invented that sh*t man, France invented getting ‘lit’ or ‘turning up’ that would be coined in France because they are the rowdiest, liveliest crowd on the f*cking face of the earth at least for me and the music I make. Every time I come around it’s like ‘Woah! Man, you did the right thing!’ Maybe other people feel that way across the world, but they don’t show it (the same way). I don’t know if it’s the drinks here, or the smoke, but they show me extreme love, man and that’s a good feeling.” 

He also commented on French hip-hop scene saying he was aware of it “vaguely (through his travels)” and respected it for its autonomous, underground spirit. Some time back he had produced a song with Mobb Deep/113 'L’école du crime that came out on an earlier Franco-American collaboration album in 2005, The Basement and featured US MCs such as Cappadonna, Royce da 5’9” alongside Pete Rock, The Beatnuts and Slum Village.  

II.

“Well, people who know me, the ones who come around, they know I do collages. I cut sh*t up out of magazines and just do weird sh*t in the off hours when people are writing rhymes. It’s like I have Tourette’s syndrome – you know where you don’t sit still? I think I have that. I do a lot of collages and I approached this album like that, it’s art, it’s music whatever, it’s all the same.

Over time, it was more of an instrumental project I was doing. I was just piecing sh*t together and then it just kept morphing and taking a shape of its own. I was spending late nights just piecing more little bits on top, the same way you do with a collage and then it just felt like it was worthy. There were certain parts where I felt people could rap and it really was a puzzle over time. I had no idea where it was going to take me.”

Alchemist

“Alchemist talks “Russian Roulette” experimentation, says beats aren’t good enough for featured emcees” Hip Hop DX, July 9, 2012, interview by MelanieC 

One site referred to the French Blend projects as sampling ‘Francophone funk.’ This seems off-mark to me, as the groove is deconstructed and subtle on French Blend when there. Besides, France is not known for its funk music (or any longstanding Black musical tradition, even jazz while it has an almost spiritual connection in France took its power from the appreciative audiences, rather than the local musicians; noting of course the few exceptions).    

Rather than dipping into a kind of French funk imaginary, what motivates Alchemist most is playing around with language and ideas. This work is more of a punk sonic mash-up along the lines of Crass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Consolidated or Mark Stewart and The Maffia albeit without the (often revolutionary) Leftist politics.

Those musicians from the ‘70s-‘80s were continuing a radical tradition dating back to Russian collages at the turn of the 20th Century and saw their collages as a radical, oppositional act. In contrast, the dominant mood of Alchemist’s French Blend series is absurdist and theatrical, more like a radio play than music in the conventional sense. Another point of reference might be the kind of impressionistic radio plays broadcast on public radio (in Australia, for example, the now-shelved Night Air program that ran on Radio National there). His interest is not so much to disrupt and disturb, but rather transport you to a different cultural space, which might also reflect something personal of the artist as well.    

Added to this, it is apt that Alchemist uses the collage effect because there is a long history linking the practice with France. See, musique concrète and this informative article from FACT magazine on Pierre Schaeffer, dubbed “the godfather of sampling,” who created challenging work he characterised as “research into noises” throughout the 30s and 40s while working for the French public broadcaster, RDF. 

Something of real interest here in the hip-hop context is the placement of the vocal samples. Unlike the standard formula of opening or ending with a vocal sample, Alchemist on occasion repeats them, or echoes them via light-hearted connections between the tracks and languages. For example, on the first French Blend the track, “Cotelettes d’agneau” starts with a sample of an American voice - is it Action Bronson from his TV letter of love to French food and wine (that has in other incarnations also featured Alchemist), From Paris with Love ? - saying, “We’re chillin’ in Paris, I got lamb chops …” (this song title means ‘lamb chops’ in French). At one point a woman says, in French, she’s “crazy about this music.” The music itself is repetitive, swooning; the kind of sleek music you could imagine being played in a TV movie to indicate suspense or discovery.   

One of my favorites, also from the first “French Blend is La Selection Outro du Disc Jockey” with its extravagant layering of voices. First, the sexy-woman DJ saying the song title and the male voices singing the same words in a jolly descending scale, set against a swirly synth effect transplanted from ‘60s pop. This makes me laugh each time I hear it as there are two radio stations here in Paris, FIP and Nova, that are famous not only for their eclectic playlists, covering all genres, but also their female presenters who with their sultry, theatrical voices over-state, over-enunciate just for effect as they do the back announcements.   

Sometimes the point of the various collage elements remains elusive. “Etoile” (Star) might be referring to the métro station near the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées, however. the connection with an English-accented woman reading part of a weather report (in English) suggests that this might be an imagined location, rather than a real place. On the second album there is a track called “Clignancourt Metro,” which suggests another Paris link, but no such station exists. (There is a Porte de Clignancourt métro station is the far north of the city. This is a surprising place for the LA producer to mention as this area is a kind of transit location, known for its vast flea market, but also large numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets. It’s a pretty seedy neighborhood).

One highlight is “Tintement Bébé” – the song’s title is difficult to translate, but likely refers to the mobiles put on prams to keep babies entertained, though tintement alludes to a high-pitched sound, a tinkling or jingle. This track combines a man intoning lyrics that make little sense, stagey disco elements, an echo effect and one of the key refrains, found all over hip-hop, as a direct borrow from soul about loving “music forever and ever.”

Barrière d’enfer” (Gate to/of, hell) also from the first album is impressive the way it combines an ethereal effect, drums borrowed from ‘70s musical arrangements (see: Michel Berger’s Message personnel” as sung by Françoise Hardy) and high-pitched sounds straight out of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Such a description might sound messy, but it works basically because it sounds like the Alchemist, the only difference is that is has been transposed to a different linguistic and cultural context.

French Blend, part 2 is much more American in feel and content, with repeated U.S. samples instead of the French and a harder edge. The French connection is primarily maintained via the track titles, see: “Le Mécanicien” and “Vivre Et Mourir.” The second title means “To live and to die” though as with the others this feels a bit Google-translated, maybe it was meant to be “Live and Let Die” in a homage to the Paul McCartney/ Wings anthem: this would be appropriate considering the epic nature of both. 

Not so long ago, Alchemist put up a short documentary on his work with Dutch MC Kempi on his Twitter feed linked to the Rap N Glorie EP that came out on vinyl in April 2017. In an interview, he explained how it feels to be working in a language that is not his own.

“I don’t know what the lyrics are, or nothing,” he said. “That’s probably good to get that perspective cause probably a lot of the world is that, you know what I mean? Just pffft, you know, so I’m sitting back and I’m hearing melodies, or rhythms that are dope to me. That’s universal.”

There’s something extremely interesting about this, in the way that sounds that only exist as far as they have potential to be transformed. Common associations with language, with feeling and meaning as cultural markers become secondary to the process of creation/reinvention. Whether it’s his reworking/re-imagining of French sources, or his earlier international sorties (Russia, Israel) alluded to via his album titles, there is something invigorating about all of this, pushing hip-hop in a direction that has rarely been seen, if ever, before. 

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.” Then referring to his “Ain’t it funny” beat from Brown’s 2016 Atrocity Exhibition (Warp), he added: “It was just wild, so free and expressive. That was one of my most favourite beats. I was so chuffed that Danny picked it.”

For many, Paul White’s work is inextricably linked with “Danny” (Brown). Especially since White’s often startling production work on Atrocity Exhibition where he produced 10 of the 15 tracks radically re-imagined what a Hip-Hop record might sound like.

Throughout our conversations I sensed that White was keen to draw my attention to the vast eclecticism of his music, spanning as it does the high-energy machinations with Brown, but also the super-smooth soul of Golden Rules, the 80s pop inflection of his collaboration with Open Mike Eagle - Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group, 2014) and his current live-performance based solo works.

Being free to take risks is central to not only White’s practice, but also self-image as an artist, which coincides with a dislike of rigid categories. “I hate labels,” White told me. “Life can’t be explained in words, I know we have to use words to describe things, but I think this is why I talked about energy in the past.” He continued: “I like to live my life according to that idea, rather than thinking that everything is split into genres or putting things in boxes, as otherwise this inhibits you, stops you from going to other places.”

What follows is an analysis of White’s musical aesthetic (layering, a love for untamed, natural sound and interest in musical tension) and also a lesson Madlib "taught" him. 

White shares his recollections of working with Yasiin Bey, Freddie Gibbs, Golden Rules partner, Eric Biddines and Danny Brown. (Open Mike Eagle and Guilty Simpson are also important, but escape inclusion because of limited space). When speaking with me, White was particularly enthusiastic about the project he was then in the final stages of mixing, although he was unable to share any of the tracks. Expected to come out early next year, he says that it is his most personal release yet.

Earlier, I suggested a link with Blake. With Paul White being from my point of view an extremely English artist; but this “Englishness” must be one that allows for the High Romantic/psychedelic swoon of getting lost in the moment, see his love of Ambient music, alongside the deep influence of African artists, from the east, west and south.

 

I.

“My first exploration of electronic music on my own was totally Ambient. I’m a mood-based person and fascinated by people, why we feel the way we feel. Music stirs such deep feelings in us, so this is my place: feelings, emotions, psychology and deep atmospheres and worlds you can create that can totally change your mind-space.”

— Paul White, interview with the author

In February this year, on the 25th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92  an article published in FACT asked White to describe the importance of the album on his development as an artist. White explained how as a 16/17 year-old into Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang, his first reaction was, “Wow, what is this?!”

“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.”
Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was Ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing Hip-Hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there were also breakbeats, which I understood from Hip-Hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.

Listening to Paul White’s work, I noticed how he often used “layering” in his music, across different genres. How a single note would appear at a certain point and just rest there, to create depth and intensify the mood. Within Hip-Hop production – and Soul and Jazz … - individual sounds have an essentially dynamic quality: repeating, interacting, changing form.

In White’s music you find a single note – or series of sounds that have a unified effect - just resting there. This seemed to go against expectations, this stillness in the music separate from everything else and intrigued me.

In the interview with FACT White explained how Aphex Twin introduced him to the importance of atmosphere, of creating “worlds for people to go into.” Not only that there was something about the music that sounded “British in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home … It felt like home, really warm.”  

 

MB: “Thinking about this idea of layering in music then, where a sound is brought in and kept there for an extended period. I see it visually, almost as if the sound were like a stream of light. If you think of the song “Get your head around this” (feat. Trim, Watch the Ants EP, One-Handed Music, 2013)

the song construction is quite formal, conventional and then on the hook you have a sound, or to be more accurate a layer of sound/s that adds enormous depth.

Paul White: In terms of layering, I love harmonies; I love atmospheres.  I think you’re right it comes from Ambient music where you can develop different themes. Layering can intensify emotions and feelings and make things richer; then you can add themes and subtract themes. You can add more atmosphere, subtract atmosphere. A lot of things work on a subconscious level when you are creating music, I think. You go into this weird zone you’re not even quite conscious of, then suddenly you come back and think, Wow, where did I just go? Maybe layering is part of that journey.

I’m fascinated by sound. The layering part of it just comes from that, the different feelings and textures you can create from that. In my studio, I’ve got quite a few different toys that can produce different sounds and that’s important to me, to have different colours, different palettes.

MB: When looking closely at song construction, I often notice that at say 30 second or one-minute intervals a Hip-Hop producer brings in a new sound, or sample, it’s similar to a classic Jazz composition or a Pop song. I was thinking the layering effect may have a similar significance for you, it adds intensity, but also is part of how you build your songs.  

Paul White: Sure, sure, yeah. I like song-based music, even though I’ve written beats over the years, the layering thing reflects where I come from which is writing songs with a guitar. I love song structures, and this is one thing I’ve been getting into more recently, trying to write songs again. It’s all about taking yourself on a journey and hopefully taking listeners on a journey. Some of my favourite music is Prog-Rock and Jazz and Jazz-Fusion, long pieces running anything from three minutes to 20 minutes. What I like about Prog is that you get all these different aspects of music in one song.

This is what has drawn me to sampling and this comes from Krautrock as well, all the different sections you get in a song. Probably my favourite band ever is Weather Report, again they go everywhere they take you in so many different directions, largely because you’ve got all these different instrumentalists - a whole band. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to be as many different people as I can even though it’s just me. I can be the drummer, play the guitar and match the feeling, even though I don’t have a band.

MB: It’s interesting this focus on different elements, when you have one instrument, or element that’s exposed. Sampling or sample-based music is all about this, isn’t it?

Paul White: It’s funny you say that, I’m just mixing my album, my solo album. A lot of problems I’ve had in the past is mixing engineers wanting everything to sound quite smooth, but I love sound jumping out and leaping out. It’s taken a couple of weeks working with this mixing engineer for him to really get that that’s what works best for my music. I love things poking out, I love something kind of odd to just jump out at you and grab your attention. It all probably relates to life, without sounding too corny, some things jolt you, life is never just smooth.

Hopefully my music can then reflect a more genuine experience. The music I love reflects genuine life experience, you can hear something of the musicians’ life and their journey and their souls in the tracks. I’m a big fan of things jumping out, I don’t like things to be too smooth. That’s where you find the excitement.

I’m quite an extreme person. I did quite a lot of extreme sports as a kid. Even though I’m quite calm on the surface, I’m quite a high-energy person; so, I think comes from deep down, this aspect of my personality probably.

MB: I’d like to focus in on some things you’ve said there, as much of it really connects with me. For example, I really love the materiality of Hip-Hop. The producers I respect understand that sound doesn’t have to be made even. There’s something political, I think and interesting about this as well. Let’s focus in on this idea that you mentioned of sound jumping out at you, can you think of one of your Hip-Hop tracks that reflects this? This idea of not taming the sound.

Paul White: I mean, I just got to shout out Madlib for that. Madlib is a massive influence on my beats and his music to me was never smooth; things would jump out, there’d be this angular style. Nothing was smooth, he’d have these wild sounds that would leap out, so his music would sound totally alive. He didn’t try to do smooth mixes either. He showed a lot of producers that you didn’t have to have a glossy, shiny studio like Dr Dre. You can write these really raw, gritty songs that you not spend too much time on it.

It’s creativity first, that’s what I love about someone like Madlib. You can just throw ideas down. It’s not about making it sound smooth, or perfect – and my music sounded better for it, sounded better off raw. Madlib made me feel okay about doing that. I think he has influenced a lot of people in this regard, letting people feel that it’s okay to go wild. He taught me that for sure.”

 

To understand White’s capacity for reinvention, listen to this original and remix of the Golden Rules’ tune “Never Die” – the first version of the track appeared on their debut release Golden Ticket (Lex Records, 2015)

And then the remix, which features Freddie Gibbs, alongside Eric Biddines and Yasiin Bey (this remix is off-the-wall monstrous-sublime).

MB: “The original and remix of “Never Die,” I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them and thinking about how different they are to each other, can you speak on this?  

Paul White: (pauses) The initial one was quite quick there is no real meaningful story behind that … It’s got this great guy on it Jamie Woon – an amazing British composer and singer, we got him to sing the chorus on that. I felt to me a straight-up, smooth old school Hip-Hop beat.

At that time, I was trying to experiment with live performance and experimentation, so the remix was a challenge for me. I took the sample and played around with the vocal. Music is often about challenges for me. I said to myself to play the music around the vocal so took a lot of instruments and played some keys over the top and remember feeling quite pleased, thinking this is going to work, this experimenting with something that’s half Hip-Hop, half live. “Never die” is quite rare, as it’s in-between: the old me and the new me. It reflects a certain time.

I remember trying to make sure I got it right. Once you’ve got the basic groove and the harmonies right, I just experiment with it. There’s never any end goal ever (laughs). Music is a sacred place where I don’t feel pressures, I can be totally in the moment.

MB: The first one as you say is a kind of classic Soul-based Hip-Hop track and the remix is this epic piece of music. I haven’t heard many Hip-Hop tracks like this, with the orchestration and all the elements, it’s amazingly different.

Paul White: I need to listen to it again, I’ll get it on Soundcloud, I haven’t listened to it for a while. It’s all about being epic, the original one was never one of my favourites as it’s a bit too straight-forward, I never really like things that are too straightforward; I’m glad I did it, but preferred the remix. Just found it now … (he starts to play the song).

I’m going to listen to it, oh yeah, the crazy drums – the Djembe.

MB: Towards the end, it becomes quite strange.

Paul White: Oh yeah, and I sang on it as well. I forgot about that.

MB: It’s really got that layering of sound thing happening. I don’t think it’s ironic, but it’s really over the top.

Paul White: Yeah, it’s true it’s out there. Yeah, the Djembe was a big part of it that’s the Djembe I got in Gambia. That’s an important part of it and the slightly jazzy piano. It’s a mix of everything; my love of Jazz, my love of Hip-Hop rhythm, my love of African rhythm and then at the end. It’s insane, which I quite like.

MB: It’s appealing because you’ve got these huge stars on it and the music is just going nuts.

Paul White: Sure.

MB: You talk about the playful aspect, but it’s kind of funny in a way. It has a quality of freedom about it. In the original it’s very respectful of the MCs, they’re very central and then the remix it’s something else.

Paul White: Listening to it now, I see what you mean. Music must be free, that’s probably the most important word. Music needs to be free, untamed. I find it very hard to stick to briefs, if I must do something, it won’t work (laughs).

MB: Thinking about the MCs now, Eric (Biddines from Golden Rules) is interesting. I like the sound of his voice. He’s got a very different sound.

Paul White: Yeah, yeah.

MB: Could you just talk about your experience working with him and then Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs, who was added to the remix?

Paul White: Eric is half of Golden Rules, obviously. He’s one of the best guys ever, I really like him, just as a person. He’s like me, I think. He’s playful, he ticks all the boxes for me. He’s an amazing lyricist, his lyric-writing is just great. His delivery is fun and free. He can rap, he can sing. We’re like kindred spirits, I think. He’s one of the guys I’ve met over the years that it feels incredible natural working with.

Yasiin Bey, we recorded him in a studio in London. He was great, he was really professional, just got in the booth, I think we did about three takes. He did a great job, came in and he left.

We sent over the song to see if he liked it and he did. It was one of those landmark experiences to see him nodding his head and loving the beat. What was really nice was his question, who is the other guy rapping? This was really big of him, as I could tell Eric you know Mos Def was asking who you were. That contact with Yasiin came through management, as did Freddie Gibbs.

(Freddie Gibbs) was supposed to be on the album, but he delivered the verse a bit late. We decided it’d be better on a remix anyway because the rest of the album isn’t like him, so thought it’d be perfect to have his verse on the remix. It’s the only song I’ve done with three MCs on it, it was nice to have the three different sections to play with, musically. It’s probably why the song is a bit manic, a bit crazy as it’s three different people, with three different backdrops and then you squeeze me in in the chorus and then at the end. So, it’s like you’ve got four personalities in that one song (laughs).”

 

III.

MB: Can you talk about the tech you use to create these distinctive atmospheres you’re speaking about?

Paul White: It can be anything, you can use anything. You can use what you’ve got in a free, open, crazy way. I’ve got enough things to make it playful. I’ve got enough tools to enable me to try anything I want, effects or plug-ins on Pro Tools. It’s about not being tame with it, about really pushing things in unconventional ways. There’s a good and a bad side to the way I write. It’s so spontaneous. I don’t learn things, maybe I do subconsciously, but I don’t deliberately learn things at work to then repeat them ever. I never, ever have.

Every time you start you’re coming from a start of play.  As long as you approach it in that fun, experimental way, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

MB: Do you use a lot of compression?

Paul White: I used to a lot. I think a lot of people do. If you compress things a lot it makes it sound better and crushes all the sounds together, so you don’t have to spend so much time mixing and balancing the sounds, cause when you compress everything really hard it balances everything by itself. It can be really creative, but I’m trying to use it less and less and less now.

Bruce Swedien who mixed all the biggest Michael Jackson records (to read more on his career, working with Quincy Jones and mixing Jackson’s Thriller have a look at this article). He mixed everybody. He always talks about how he hates compression. The person who made arguably the best-sounding record of all time says he hates compression because it levels everything out. There is a real danger of losing natural life. My goal is to never, ever use compression – that is my goal, but as long as it’s used in a creative way, you can create sonic textures from compression …

MB: Does it dull the quality of the sounds?

Paul White: For instance, if you’ve got a whole drum-kit what sounds great about it is the life and the loud peak of the kick-drum, but a lot of the effect might be really subtle, because the drum sounds are so short. Often people would be surprised by how many records you listen to and the kick-drum is so loud that they’re not noticing, but it creates a hell of a lot of energy because the sounds are so short. If you compress that you’re going to kill that attack and energy, you’re going to make it quieter.

You’ve got to be really careful about getting rid of signs of life in your music by using compression. But again, I’m a massive fan of no rules, you can do anything with anything.

MB: How about quantizing?

Paul White: No, I never quantize, never. I hate quantizing. In all of my beats, I don’t use metronomes. I don’t use grids. I don’t use quantizers: nothing. I hate grids, I hate any kind of time reference telling me to keep to a time, I don’t do that. I’ve only started doing this a tiny, tiny bit recently when recording live drums, simply because it can be convenient when recording into a computer, but no for the beats and everything else, no.

I usually go through extremely long processes because I never use a metronome. You’ve got a button you can tap, depending on how fast you’re doing it that will say roughly the BPM and then you’ve got a four-bar loop, most people set up a metronome (he sings the rhythm) to know where the one is every time, I never know that, so I’d hit record and play the live drums and pray that when it looped back round it’d stay in time perfectly. I must admit it often takes me loads of goes to get that initial groove right, but I always found it so much funkier and life-like this way.

Music has to be a total representation of life, otherwise I don’t see the point, so using grids and metronomes, I don’t believe in any of that.

MB: I remember that some people judged RZA for not quantizing his beats, I’m not sure if that was something distinctive about him back in the ‘90s. Is this considered to be a maverick thing to do these days?

Paul White: I think the beat thing got really funny for a while. Again, I don’t want to come across like a dickhead, because I could offend people with what I’m going to say but it became so cool to have these loose beats, to have these unquantized beats so what people would do, and again there’s nothing wrong with it, but they would record a beat and quantize it and then they’d manually on the screen shift things in and out to make it sound out of time. It’s kind of cool, but I never understood why you’d spend all that time shifting things about, but that’s just me. Each to their own.

Some people produced great results like that, I know Dilla did that. It can be amazing. For me, I want to get a creative idea out and then move on very, very quickly. It’s a funny one when people spend a lot of time trying to make it sound out of time, what’s the point? Just play it out of time.

MB: I remember seeing a comment below your video about the quality of the post-production. It’s interesting because you constantly refer to your preference for performance, for live music – being spontaneous – but at the same time there is this great care when it comes to the final stages. Have you anything to share in terms of your approach to the post-production process?

Paul White: (pauses) It has to be the right journey. I like to keep it interesting. The journey has to be right. A lot of the post-production is making sure that every sound that pops out has meaning and is there for the right reasons. This new album, I’m really trying to make sure that the mix is right in that regard. I write the initial idea quite quickly and then spend time making sure that every sound represents a feeling and journey perfectly.”   

 

*** 

MB: "What about the tension in all this, though? There are all these moods and atmosphere in your work and then you’ve got the drum sound often hidden away almost. In Hip-Hop, traditionally it’s been all about the drum sounds; the drums are so central. What do you think about this bringing a kind of tension to your work?

Paul White: I think tension in music is a really important part of it. Music theory talks about this a lot, tension and release. Different intervals in music, say if you’re playing the piano – moving from C to E, you’re moving up a third, and different intervals between notes create a certain tension. Music is all about reflecting human emotion, tension is an important part of this, just like the release is as well. I think I’ve often focussed more on the tension than the release (laughs).

That’s probably why me and Danny Brown get on so well. We don’t resolve. Like a lot of Classical Music, there’ll be a journey you start somewhere and come back. I don’t think you can always come back, so I just go off. It’s all about excitement and stimulation.

Everybody wants to be non-offensive, that’s one of my most hated terms for music, “non-offensive.” I can’t stand that.

MB: It’s something I’ve noticed across your different records and projects, this interesting placement of the different sounds, say for the drum sound it’s never or rarely a dominant boom bap sound ever, maybe I’m wrong here.

Paul White: No, you’re right.

MB: Often the high treble sounds are privileged. This creates a strange psychological space, it’s very interesting to me.

Paul White: It’s really something I don’t think about; it’s a very natural thing. Often when I listen to my mixes, yeah, I will have things balanced in maybe different ways that’s not the conventional mix of sound. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way my ears work. Maybe I’ve got really strange ears (laughs) the way I hear sound.

Part of the magic is recording sound, the song-writing process, playing instruments, exploring melody and different sonic effects and then you’ve got the beautiful world of arranging it all, that’s one of my favourite parts if not my favourite. I think this way of listening definitely comes from my Ambient days, listening to Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.

Atmosphere is the most important thing, I mean I love beats and I love drums, but I want to take you on a dream journey more than you grit your face up and go, Ah this is a tough beat. It’s much more important for me to take people on a journey. It’s lovely constructing worlds inside a computer and as I say, it’s all very natural. I’ll just zone out into another world, put things together and not think about it too much.

 

MB: You know I was reading the fan comments below the video for ‘When it rain’ by Danny Brown and the listeners were picking up the link with Ambient music, they were talking about him signing to Warp and these sorts of things. Can you make that link between the two now with the track, it has some interesting samples in it too.

Paul White: I think that’s the biggest connection. The sample I used was from a woman called Delia Derbyshire, who was a really incredible, incredible electronic experimentalist, music pioneer who worked at the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I can guarantee that Aphex Twin would have been interested in those guys.

I see these artists as having the same lineage, in that they are all really, really interested in experimenting with, pushing electronic sound. Delia Derbyshire was manipulating reel-to-reel tape, slowing things down, doing every kind of sound manipulation you can imagine and that was exactly what Aphex Twin was doing, doing all this incredible sound manipulation. I’m nowhere near as in-depth, they are on a genius level of sound manipulation. I wouldn’t have the patience, but I definitely see the lineage between those two.

There’s also a raw energy about it and that’s where I fit in. I mean, I love that raw energy as well, I get attracted to that sonic atmosphere and landscape, but that was probably a beat I wrote in about fifteen minutes, I immediately got attracted to it, whacked it into a drum machine. I wrote it very, very quickly, about four years ago and then Danny picked it. I’ve sent Danny hundreds and hundreds of beats, now it might run into the thousands, some of those beats I might have given him years ago and then during the album process he’ll go back and start listening to them. That was one of my favourites, I was really pleased that he picked that one.

MB: It’s a stunning song. One of the fans referred to it as ‘aggressive belly-dancing music’ I thought that was cute.

Paul White: (laughs) It’s always fascinating to see how people take to your work. I think that is one of the most beautiful things. I’d never want to say to anybody: no, no, the music was about this and this was the background and it’s about this thing, as if putting it into a box. I think that is what is so beautiful about music and art, people interpret it how they want and take it into their lives. I think that is almost the most magic part about music. I don’t think anybody is ever wrong, I’d never argue with an interpretation.

MB: Madlib used the same sample on "Real" from Piñata (Madlib Invazion, 2014) did you know about this, did it have any impact on your work?

Paul White: No, as I said I made that beat years before the Madlib record even came out, maybe he made it on the same day (adds emphasis) and I never even knew (laughs). I made that beat maybe five or six years ago, probably around 2003. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised when I heard Freddie Gibbs doing it with Madlib, because it’s an amazing sample. If anyone is going to muck around with it, it would be Madlib (laughs). It’s cool we’re on the same path. We like the same stuff.”

 

IV.

African New Wave

In 2014, Paul White released Shaker Notes an idiosyncratic album infused with musical influences from the African continent, but making it all seem natural within the electro context. To read more about this, check out White’s selection of five African albums that influenced this project, published in Stamp the Wax

MB: How does your unusual placement of drums connect with your interest in the music of different African artists, is there any link there?

Paul White: My dad has always played a lot of African music, we played it a lot around the house. And one of the first festivals I went to as a kid was WOMAD. One of my fondest memories as a kid was going to this festival with him and seeing all of these incredible musicians from all over the world, but the music that struck me the most were these master African drummers that would come over. There’d be a stage of about 20 of these artists and it’d just blow my mind - the energy of it all.

I used to love Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré … I’ve actually got African heritage as well, my great-grandad was from Sierra Leone, so my granddad was Black, his family came from Sierra Leone. I don’t know if that’s part of it, somehow to be drawn to this music.

MB: In some ways, I’d say this is a key element in terms of your work, across the records – this influence. I feel a bit uncomfortable saying ‘African’ - is it primarily West African, say Malian or music from elsewhere, from Nigeria? Is there a particular kind of African music that you’re drawn to?

Paul White: Well, I love Malian music, but no I just connect with music I like, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.  But I’ve still got loads of family from Sierra Leone, so I guess most of the music I’ve listened to is from West Africa.

I actually got lucky and went to Gambia a couple of years ago, my ex-girlfriend was there for a little while and I had a really magic opportunity of studying for a week with a master Djembe player who made his own drums. I had an amazing time with him. I’ve always loved rhythm, my Dad is a drummer – not professionally, but as a hobby, he used to play in a couple of bands when I was a kid. There was always rhythm being tapped around the house. I find rhythm very natural, when I get on a drum-kit, I find it the most natural thing.

Maybe it is for all of us, I mean as children everybody taps and hits things; there’s rhythm everywhere, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to it. A lot of African music is about dance, this is something I really noticed in Gambia as well. It was all and one the same thing. In every drum group there is a dance group. One of the first things this guy taught me was the signal of how to start and to stop, to indicate to the dancers what was going to happen.

It’s not coming from any kind of ‘making money’ place it’s coming from a beautiful spiritual place.

MB: Talk to me a bit more about this experience in Gambia, is there any concrete connection you can make with the music you made after this visit?

Paul White: Well, I brought back a big Djembe (laughs), number one. The guy made me my own massive, amazing Djembe, so that’s in my studio and have been used on many recordings since. It was the experience and the spirit that I brought back mainly. It’s this pure, joyous spiritual connection with music and the Earth and the spirit, really; it was a good reminder to get out of this Western world that is just so money-driven.

It just felt magic for me personally to be in Africa, I’ve been to Morocco previously, but this is a very different Africa. It was very special for me to be so close to Sierra Leone, I really wanted to go. It felt quite natural for me being there, the spirit and the energy of the people felt so lovely. Just playing with that guy was pretty special because he immediately saw my passion for music pretty quickly and we went through most of the stuff he wanted to teach me very, very fast and he actually started to teach me some of the local music from the tribe where he came from, his individual tribal rhythm he played that was personal to them. And that just felt incredibly special. The whole trip was incredibly, incredibly inspiring. We drummed until the sun went down and there’d be nine, or ten children dancing around.

All these kids playing around and jumping around, it was a magic experience. I’ll never forget it. It reminds you of what music is about. I’ll always think back to that time I had there."

 

(Coda:

Paul White: “It was when I was about 19 or 20 when I started to really buy records that was when I moved on from my song-writing-Ambient-Trance phase, doing things all at the same time and started to really dedicate myself to making beats and sampling. I sold all my synths and bought an MPC and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on records and really, really started digging which I think is an amazing musical education.

That’s the great thing about Hip-Hop, people can get critical about sampling but if you’re going out digging for records, I can’t think of a better musical education cause you’re buying every kind of genre. As soon as you start digging you get inspired by music from all over the world.

I was just looking for samples, I wasn’t even looking for great songs. Most of the music was rubbish, but there often was a great sample, or a great sound. I really value that education, which is buying every genre and just feeling it. I’d mix a Turkish sample with a Bollywood sample with a funk sample with a Prog-Rock sample, all in one song. 

You’ll hear that a lot in my album, The Strange Dreams of Paul White from 2009, I used to delight in chopping up music from all over the world and putting it together so there were all these currents and emotions across all these different genres and you can feel it. This is something that Hip-Hop taught me, that is what Hip-Hop is for me; it’s all genres, it’s Country music and Folk music, it’s Jazz and Funk and Rock music, Latin music – everything.

MB: When you’re listening to these records are you listening for specific sounds, or are you listening for qualities, what is the process like when choosing which element to sample?

Paul White: It’s probably about the emotion in the playing. It’ll either be the emotion in the playing, or something about the sonic quality itself, it could be anything from sampling a kick-drum to the whole guitar part. You're listening to an old 70s record with all these effects you just don’t hear nowadays from an analogue mixing desk, for example. It’s often a mix of the two.

I try not to look for loops, often what I do is write the drums first, I’d never just sit down from scratch and just listen to a record and try and find the best part, even though I have done this. I usually sit down first and pull the record out and chop up different drum hits and make a drum pattern first and then listen to records with my drums playing in the background. I’d never ever listen to a record and go, oh I’m going to take this and then build on that. I like to have an element of me first and then start building on top of it.

Music is magical in that sense, you can hear it when someone plays a guitar part with so much passion, or listening to a synth part it makes me think what was that person going through that day, did they just get married, did they just get a divorce? Was their child born the night before? You can feel that in the music, that’s what attracts me, I think.

MB: I liked it when you said that ‘it’s the emotion in the playing’ that brings us back to your passion for live performance, doesn’t it?

Paul White: Yeah, sure.

MB: It’s something very personal.

Paul White: Yeah, totally, yeah).   

Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/’Up North Trip’ (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995)  

Prodigy, the hard-nosed Queens rapper who kiln-fired New York hip-hop into a thing of unhurried attitude and stoic elegance as half of the duo Mobb Deep, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 42.
— Jon Caramanica, New York Times, June 20, 2017
My handicap took its toll on my sanity
My moms got me at the shrink at like 13
And doctors called the cops on me
’Cause I be throwing IV poles and they ignore me
I’ve gotta try to calm down and breathe
I can only hold it but for so long — put me to sleep.

'Ladies in the house say yeah,' so Prodigy says, as he saunters the Bataclan stage. Yeah, comes the expected reply. 'Check that out,' he says, feigning shock and surprise, 'We're Mobb Deep, not Common or Mos Def or some shit.'

One month before the famous Paris venue, The Bataclan was the site of terrorist attacks in November 2015, I went to see Mobb Deep's two-decade anniversary show marking the release of their Infamous record. 

During the set Prodigy stops everything to ask the support staff to change the lighting, to make it red, like the interior of a sweaty bordello - more dramatic than the previous natural-style lighting scheme, as the group goes from one hit to the next. 

Very, very early on, one of my first pieces of writing on hip-hop, published on this site, was on Mobb Deep. When writing it, I wanted this piece to be similar in style to a letter, directed to someone like me – looking in on a culture that was not hers: both faux-naïf and directive. Part of it went like this: 

If I were asked to recommend an album to a hip-hop novitiate, I’d suggest they listen to Mobb Deep’s ’The Infamous’ ... Or maybe something from Big L 

(Maybe I’d choose this one - big l Harlem’s finest vol 1 & 2 full album - for the urgent delivery ... and smarts). All this might seem perverse for two reasons; well, none of the records above provided the déclic moment for me as I started listening to hip-hop seriously (second time around) last year. None of these records were what first made me think I should spend a bit more time here with this music, making connections that made sense to me (…) Being authentic is often discussed in relation to hip-hop; this notion of the MC being real, or representing his/her life and then the fans think about this when assessing the quality of the music.

For obvious reasons then this is impossible for me to do - how could it be otherwise? So, what then appeals to me when I listen to these records? The sound, basically. This music still stands up, unlike some of the wittier, more literary, more sonically adventurous hip-hop from the same era (some of which sounds really twee to me now, even though I liked it a lot then). 

Besides, as a woman liking art that is foreign in terms of my experience is nothing new - I think one of the key aspects of being female is living this, on a daily basis to the point where your appreciation of something includes an expectation that it won’t be something you know personally. And this is no problem - not everything you like, or appreciate, needs to be a mirror. 

Here is part two of the same interview with Prodigy …

Since the 60s so many people have spoken about love being what the world needs now etcetera. I disagree, what we ‘need’ – if you favour such expression - more than anything, and especially now, is curiosity about those who are different to us, driven by respect. This is how I relate to Mobb Deep – and others in the constellation; ‘there are no stars in the New York sky
They're all on the ground …’

What interests me then, as now is how we can engage with – and even love – art that does not speak to our experience; how the genius and sheer clarity of certain voices can cut through bringing people together through the shared appreciation of art, whether it be music, or literature, or film.

Now, I know about issues relating to appropriation – and am starting to feel just a bit awkward, where is the late Prodigy in all of this, the apparent subject of this writing? But in my world-view this is the highest compliment to offer an artist, as E.M. Forster famously stated: ‘only connect’.

The scene in Howard’s End that introduced this phrase was a stolen kiss between two of the novel’s characters that becomes part of an internal monologue:

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

When I think back to the time when I started listening to Mobb Deep, again in earnest, there was no intellectualising/no theorising required: I just liked it. I liked the sound; the way it seemed like we had a direct line to the artist's brain, with all the intelligence and humour to be found there and the way this music summed up a particular moment in music, the way it typified a city and an era.

I liked the way the wordplay never seemed forced, while it expertly buttressed the immediacy of the story to be told. This notion of story-telling in hip-hop often rankles with me, especially when it becomes overly smart, arch and knowing, but within the Mobb Deep universe you had both: amazingly constructed narratives that were filled with intense feeling.

And then if you believe that hip-hop as a genre is distinctive in the way it offers a voice to the unheard, in Mobb Deep you had this, in excess – and yet this was music that could cross borders, with ease: I mean, contemporary European rap is drenched in a Mobb Deep influence.

As with the greatest art in any genre, the intrinsically specific could make sense to people with no immediate life experience that resembled what they were hearing/or seeing because it was personal, located and true - just like a diary written by someone in an occupied zone, or during war-time. At its best, Mobb Deep’s music could offer everything, at once. See, for example, 'Trife Life’ – a Mobb Deep song that initially triggered my interest for its wit, self-confidence and extraordinarily smart construction of a narrative, with suspense and momentum:

(Just love those early rhymes: 'It's just another day, drowning my troubles with a forty
That's when I got the call from this brown skin shorty
She asked me where's my crew at, said we could do whatever
She got a crew too and said that we should get together
I said, "Aight, just call me back in a hour
So I can take a shower and gather up the manpower"
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick isn’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the ho lonely in tears…'

It’s so exact and funny, it makes me laugh every time I hear it, you can imagine the expression on his face during the phone call and the shift from excitement to trepidation – when he remembers how it ended last time - as if it were a scene in a film. You can hear the youth in the expression, how it was pure and essential.

This could be the voice of any pretend-macho young guy who is feeling nervous in New York, Cleveland, Marseilles – any place, the world over, it is individual and universal at the same time. No games; this music is funny, in parts, while expressing deep feeling related to a specific situation: ‘complete’ – as the French say. It was that simple.

Just like a woman standing beside me at The Bataclan that night, singing and screaming and shouting pretty much every single word of every single song, despite not even being born, or maybe just a little kid in 1995, the year that Mobb Deep released The Infamous.

This young woman, just like me, probably wouldn’t feel the need to explain her preference and give it form, all she knew, and knew deep in the core of her being that there was something about this music that clicked. She liked it, it was that simple – and that complex.        

Mobb Deep’s the Infamous is as bold, as clear as The Stooges’ Funhouse : it has the same force and desire to be heard, to stake out territory. I love the simplicity of it, the complete nature of the aesthetic; there are no weaknesses, no gaps.

By simplicity, I mean simple like a meditation; or simple like anything that matters in this world, in fact. Simple like a kiss, or a decision to act; simple like a thought, a memory. The music I grew up with, the nasty guitar music of the Melbourne underground scene was similarly ‘simple’ - focussed on the impact, not showing off fancy technique. There was no need.

***

"UP NORTH TRIP" TRACK INFO

Written By Prodigy of Mobb Deep & Havoc

Recording Engineer Louis Alfred III

Mixing Engineer Tony Smalios & Q-Tip

Mastering Engineer Leon Zervos

Executive Producer Matt LifeScott Free & Mobb Deep

Recorded At Battery Studios (New York, City)

Release Date April 25, 1995

Verse One: Prodigy

It all began on the street, to the back of a blue police vehicle
Next come the bookings, the way things is lookin
It’s Friday, you in for a long stay
Gettin shackled on the bus first thing come Monday
Hopin in your mind you’ll be released one day
But knowin, home is a place you’re not goin for a long while
Now you’re up on the isle
And the position that you in got you refusin’ to smile
But keep in mind there’s a brighter day, after your time spent
Used to be wild, but locked up, you can’t get bent
Thought you could hack it, now you’re requestin PC
You’re fragile, it ain’t hard to see
Niggas like that don’t associate with me
I’d rather, get busy to the third degree
Cause the war in population’s on infinitely
If this was the street, my razor would be a mac demon
Hit you up, leave your whole face screamin’
What you in for kid - bustin nuts?
Cats heard of me in street stories told inside this trap
Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight...

Here’s a description of the making-of the track,  published in Complex, 2011 

Produced by: Mobb Deep

Prodigy: “That song is basically a song dedicated to our people going in and out of jail back then. A lot of niggas would get locked up, come back home, get locked up, and come home.

"Niggas were selling drugs and if you’re out there on the block selling drugs, you’re constantly getting caught. You can’t get away with that shit for long, especially if you’re a small-time hustler for clothes and sneaker money.

“That was probably one of the ones that we started writing in the projects at Hav’s crib. He had a couple things. Our first sampler we had was an EPS 16 plus. It was a big-ass keyboard.

"We had that for a little while, and when the MPC came out we bought that, and that was it. A little record player, a little mixer, and that’s all we needed. We had the big ass cheap speaker with the carpet on it, like block party speakers.”

Havoc: “You don’t have no job, you’re trying to eat. And it could be somebody that you got beef with, so you might have to shoot a mothafucka because you not gonna let nobody play you. So it’s just all sorts of challenges growing up in the hood. That’s just one of those songs that brought that fact out.”

Matty C a.k.a. Matt Life (Executive Producer and A&R for Loud Records): “Q-Tip enhanced the drums on that lovely. If you listen to ‘Up North Trip’ you’ll hear the snare kind of bouncing a little bit. Cracking a little more [than normal]. Tip gave it a real nice crack compared to what it originally was. He just beefed the drums up on that one.

“Tip also worked with me closely on recommending certain engineers that were great for mixes. Hav and P would always do their own drops and Hav would always—and I would always encourage him—be the producer and do the final check on his own shit.

“The way that Tip contributed to the project was so cool because he wasn’t in there trying to say, ‘Yo, I’m the mixer for this, I’m taking credit for this.’ He was doing great in his career and he had mad love for us.

"He was just in it to help out and make sure it comes out right. Obviously, he got a nice deal. But it was really just trying to see Hav come up and really steer this ship with this group of emcees that he’s got.”

To choose one to represent the whole: ‘Up North Trip’ from the breakthrough, The Infamous record from 1995. Constantly playing with contrast, starting with the use of 70s schmaltz for the samples - ‘I'm tired of giving’ Spinners From the LP "8" released in 1977 on Atlantic Records. 

Even if there is a similar territory in the lyrics, expressing one man’s despondency: ‘When the truth becomes in question standing right before your eyes moving on to something better keep the strong alive I'm tired of giving but its you that keeps me hanging on So tired of giving (so tired of giving) can't get from falling down So tired of giving can't get up from falling down’ it's far from the same kind of psychological mood.  

The track also featured 'To Be With You' by The Fatback Band, later known as Fatback - love that detail - from a 1973 single; apparently the group had 'substantial success in South America, especially in Brazil with 'Money' and 'Backstrokin'.

You can see the depth of Prodigy’s lyricism when you compare his two verses in 'Up North Trip'. The first starts by setting the scene, using a ‘once upon a time’ beginning almost and the second person to involve us in the story and intensify a sense of proximity. He addresses us directly, using ‘you’ as if the action he is about to describe is our story as well.  

Who are you to look at me with your eyes like that?
Wisen up youngblood, before you make things escalate
And I would hate yo set your crooked ass straight

All of this suggests that what is to follow is a kind of cautionary tale, but there’s a degree of venom there, attacking his audience almost: who are you to judge me?

This subject matter and approach reminds me of first-person narratives from the past, say convict narratives, where the narrator is ready to share his vile and malicious deeds to spare others the same cruel fate, and yet it’s not that easy, mono-dimensional, because he is not seeking our absolution.

In Prodigy’s final verse, the perspective is quite different: 

Then I pause... and ask God why
Did he put me on this Earth just so I could die
I sit back and build on all the things I did wrong
Why I’m still breathin, and all my friends gone
I try not to dwell on the subject for a while
Cause I might get stuck in this corrupt lifestyle
But my, heart pumps foul blood through my arteries
And I can’t turn it back, it’s a part of me

This is amazing for the depth of feeling that comes through, the self-doubt and questioning tone, as he states:

Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin
To reach the next level of life without fumblin
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own
All alone in this danger zone

But rather than offering his Soul up to God, as might have been the case in one of those 18th or 19th narratives of wrong-doing and repentance, Prodigy then reiterates his criminal, or outsider mindset: ‘Time waits for no man, the streets grow worse
Fuck the whole world, kid, my money comes first.’ 

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

***

To talk about the song’s mood; sometimes hip-hop artists and producers refer to their work as cinematic. Usually this means that they think that the lyrics resemble a film narrative, with a plot and characters, or that the music contains moments that could be likened to scenes in a film. Frequently this impression is enhanced by interludes, performed by actors or directed lifted from films.  

Listening to ‘Fall through’ I saw scenes – like a movie - in my imagination that were not directly linked to the lyrics (the film in my head was medieval and masculine - made up of the bodies of men - maybe based on Herzog, or the photographer Salgado), but with a different colour scheme, shades of dark blue (the children/men indigo). Perhaps I was making a connection with a half-remembered evocative soundtrack

Such images in my mind are completely absent now when listening to ‘Fall through’ – I have listened to this music so many times since then and done some reading, so there’s some distance - but I can understand how when listening to this music I could imagine this idea of a mass of people (of men) rising up, in movement, as an indistinguishable mass of bodies.

This is body music: pure and visceral, speaking to the heart, while expressing an essential truth that is carried by, expressed in, blood.

 

'I’m just tired of this shit,' Jenkins says. 'Tired of the fact that it’s happening, and tired of the fact that I have to sing about it.'

— Mick Jenkins in an interview with Complex, speaking about his song '11' (that referred to the number of times Eric Garner said, 'I can't breathe' before he died).

Okayplayer noted that this song, ‘Falling through’ was ‘a rumbling rebuke of race relations from one of the nation’s many hotbeds of police brutality and harassment.’ A perceptive comment, even if the term ‘hotbeds’ bothers me, as I'd always thought it was used with something positive (a hotbed of activity etc, though I saw the definition used it with treason so I might be wrong here). 

From a conversation with Jenkins in Interview:   

RACIAL TENSION AND POLICE BRUTALITY: 'I started to notice it when I got to Chicago, really. When I was around 11 or 12, that's when I was able to see it. In high school, there was a big let out—all the students would walk in the street, the police would try to keep students out of the street, [so] they would hit them upside the head with billy clubs trying to keep them in line. We weren't being rowdy or anything; we just weren't moving fast enough. It had been affecting me my whole life, I just never realized it. I do rap because black lives matter, but it is not the only reason.'

Quoted in Drew Millard's interview for Noisey (2014)

'Niggas didn’t think I was cool. I got beat up; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint. It’s the same shit. I’ve robbed niggas; I’ve beat up people. I was young and silly and that was the environment that I grew up in, but that’s not how I turned out and I want to represent that. There’s tons of other people who grew up right next to me in those impoverished areas and that’s just not how they turned out. I want to represent that Chicago. I like the fact that it’s two sides because even when Chance reaches out and shouts out Chief Keef it’s because we know those people, and if I don’t know Cheef Keef, I know too many people like that; who look like him, who act like him. It’s all Chicago.'

And The Fader from last year:  

'With everything going on, it’s very easy to cling to all of the negativity. I was feeling like What can I do? How do we solve these problems? I was looking at the perceived solutions like protesting and going through the government. It's also not just about racial injustices. There’s all types of injustices going on and there’s a system in place that continues to push them and we feel like we can’t really fight them on any front. I wanted bring it down to a personal level, when I say “spread love." It mirrors the message that I think Jesus had when he was on the earth. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, understanding the story of him as someone who was really meek mannered and selfless even in the face of some of the most hateful things, all the way down to being killed on the cross.'

***

Over the past day or so I’ve been seeking out articles about, interviews with Mick Jenkins and while of course there is plenty of interest, I’ve also noticed how so many writers go off on tangents, perhaps reflecting a confusion about how best to relate to him and his work (one article opens with a reference to Jenkins’ brief stint in jail; another seems more interested in writing about Jenkins at a fashion show, or something.  Most, if not all, refer to his height).

My inclusion of the above is not to disrespect my colleagues, or even imply that I may be different, but I wanted to mention this as it says something about Jenkins’ apparently ambiguous, hard to locate persona as an artist (though, I don’t think it’s that contradictory, there have always been mystics/seers in hip-hop, alongside intellectuals and Black radicals calling out to people to wake up – to ‘drink more water’ - and see the truth).   

Here is a statement of the obvious: Jenkins is a deeply thoughtful person/presence in contemporary hip-hop, who is almost painfully, aware of the significance of his role as someone with a voice. In interviews, Jenkins repeats often the instance during a murder trial when the accused quoted a rapper’s lyrics as if justifying his crime. Jenkins says it so often, he seems haunted by it. 

Comfortable operating within the realm of abstractions – water is truth; love stems from knowledge; redemption might come after the oppressor and the oppressed submerge themselves in the same waters – Jenkins has said that his primary objective is to open up the conversation about love; to speak about the healing power of love. But this love, he insists is not some kind of Hallmark variety, but one that asks people to look within first and to accept and know themselves. I was particularly struck by Jenkins' point that for many people it was difficult for them to say what they wanted, or needed and thereby made it difficult for them to love and be loved.  

As Jenkins said in an interview with Pigeons and Planes:

'When people talk about love, you really only think about the pretty parts, the romantic parts of love (...) People don’t think about things like loving themselves, and what that takes. And that you have to know yourself to love yourself, and how difficult of a battle that might be.'

The interludes on Jenkins' The Healing Component - conversations with his sister that create a bridge with the work of Lauryn Hill - were meant to show that he, Jenkins, was no expert and was just another human being, trying to make his way. His view on the significance of love was just one of many. As Jenkins explained in an interview with Billboard: 'Diving into love as a topic, you know, the [people in this room] probably don’t agree on what love is, what it looks like, and what it should look like, just because we’ve all had different experiences growing up and becoming men.' 

Jenkins has expressed his ambivalence about performing in front of largely white audiences, in that his primary feeling of responsibility is to speak of and to the Black American experience; that is, to speak to his own.

My first draft of this piece was an extended riff on ‘Fall through’ within a broader discussion the importance of mood in hip-hop and Black American Gothic: it was all very interesting with its reference to DMX and a book written by an academic, and is something I’ll return to I’m sure, at some point, but after writing it I wondered if I were doing the same as so many of the other journalists: not really listening. As Jenkins’ raps in ‘Fall through’: 'I been all around the globe, different languages they feel me they don't hear me though.' 

Note then that I’m offering this appreciation up of ‘Fall through’ – a song that I think is truly beautiful – with a degree of humility; get in contact with me with your own take on its significance, especially if you think I’ve missed it; I’d be more than happy to include your voices in the mix. This is not the final word on the song, by any stretch.

***

Hip-hop has always been concerned with the marking out of territory, status and position; the easiest reading of ‘Fall through’ includes this frame-work …

“So sticks and stones I rub them off
At this hater conjunction I’m an apostrophe, above them all
That’s why I keep my circle small
Seen so many rush as Limbaugh
Niggas talking shit that I just cannot trust at all
But trust I fall, you can trust I’ll tell you just how I trip
Before I ever power trip, brought the light like a power strip
Fuck a Powerade, we bringing water”

especially in the way Jenkins acklowledges the Chicago-based movement of hip-hop artists (Chance the Rapper, Sensei Blue …) But this is not all there is going on here. My interest in the mood of the song reflected the fact that, for me, it's the most striking element and is certainly unique, but what immediately struck me – and it did, with real force – was the extraordinary contrast between the quiet moments in the music, evoking Nature and the urgency of Mick Jenkins’ delivery. Jenkins is presenting us here with a new kind of hip-hop that is at once suggestive and intense; poetic and personal, while maintaining some mystery.  

Reading the lyrics, you can’t really see a ‘coherent’ – for want of a better word – through-line, as there is so much movement (this, I think is a positive thing, adding a kind of intensity to the music because it denies us easy scripting) though by the end of the song there is, I'd suggest, a clear message.

“[Verse 1]
Nigga had to fall on his knees for a second
Stop, dropped and rolled in the middle of this fire
And the smoke, nigga had to go and breathe for a second
Plus I needed direction, a fork in every road at like three intersections
Pray for discernment, I’m seeking his blessing
This ain’t no sermon but vermin ain’t never want to see they reflection
Come and see his reflection
Like...mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the most hated of them all?
Most creative of them all
Who’s post-racial, who’s the most basic?
Who despite that loved them all?”

Who is speaking here (and about whom)?

Jenkins uses the first person, so it seems to be something about his life experience, reflecting Jenkins’ uncertainty as one man among many -using the narrative trope of a choice, the fork in the road which isn’t singular, but multiple; but this certainty about perspective becomes unclear by the end of the verse. Who is he speaking of, when he says the ‘most hated' - the 'vermin' - or the man falling to his knees? 

Is he speaking of Black Americans more broadly, reproducing commonly used stereotypes that appear to be benign, but are in fact offering just another cage: ‘Who's the most hated of them all?/Most creative of them all/Who's post-racial, who's the most basic?/Who despite that loved them all?’ 

It's possible that there might be a kind of humour here, playing on the view that Black Americans may be oppressed, but still create great art (you know the athlete/artist escape route) as if that somehow evens it all out. Though I’m not sure if this is right. All of this demonstrates the intelligence of Jenkins' lyricism. On one level, it seems almost sarcastic (with this talk of the US being ‘post-racial’ ...) but then ends on the unexpected and touching line about these unknown subjects being loved.

My interest here is not to try and pin down a unitary interpretation; I like the fact that I'm not sure about what it means, or even that there are multiple meanings. I especially find his repeated use of ‘Who’ interesting, moving from who is being talked about – ‘the most hated – to the unknown one who loves them; are they not the same? This is far, far from basic.

Earlier, Jenkins speaks of ‘vermin’ not wanting to see their reflection, a strong word to use that again does little to clarify who again is the subject here. It is possible he is speaking of himself - or could it be the police forcing a man to kneel before he dies - we, or I, don't know for sure. 

“[Pre-Hook]
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (light, light)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze (I see the light)
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
When autumn falls, you see the leaves (hesistate)
You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze
Descendants of the realest souls
Children of the Indigo
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (When autumn falls, you see the leaves)
You feel me, y’all don’t hear me though (You feel the breeze, you feel the breeze)


[Hook]
Don’t you feel the soul?
That’s the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don’t, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate”

‘Children of the Indigo’ ...

“[Outro]
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo
’Coz I might fall through if I catch the breeze
Know you probably missed the roots, but I know you seen the leaves (seen the leaves)
We descendants of the illest souls
Children of the Indigo”

The intensity and passion brimming inside this song makes it clear, it seems to me, that the sentimental heart of this music is much more than a condemnation of police violence, or a celebration of the Chicago hip-hop scene. It is something much more profound. I can't help when listening to it, especially the question - 'Don't you feel the soul?' - to think that this music is a kind of call for people to recognise the past within the present. It is an act of remembrance. 

(Listen to Curtis Mayfield’s lines in the live version of 'We the people who are darker than blue' to see how similar they are to the Mick Jenkins worldview: ‘Get yourself together, learn to know your side/Shall we commit our own genocide/Before you check out your mind?' And then ... 'I know we've all got problems/That's why I'm here to say/Keep peace with me and I with you/Let me love in my own way.'

There's a lot more that could be written here, deciphering the spiderweb nature of Jenkins' lyrics and how it connects with the past. You could link his repeated reference to water to Nina Simone who was also drawing on a much older musical tradition. I also have a half-memory the late, great poet of the NYC hip-hop underground Capital STEEZ calling himself one of the Children of the Indigo, which is some kind of New Age notion relating to those who are apart from the crowd because of their talent or insight, but I haven't checked this).    

To fall through might then be a call to reconnect with a community and its past: in this sense the evocation of Nature, the breeze, but also the leaves of the trees has a real power to it, suggesting how Nature might offer a kind of succour, while also referring to those who have come before and are still present, waiting to be acknowledged (if those alive are willing to fall through).   

Musically Mick Jenkins’ ‘Fall through’ exists within a deep space atmosphere, the sound effects creating a silvery effect, with the vocals so, so quiet. I first connected with the music as it has such a distinctive sound – such a rare and precious sound; occasionally opening up, the bass-line meandering and never really developing in any sense, whirling around in itself and the beat seemingly always just a little bit behind the vocal-line.   

In an interview on the release of ‘Fall through’ Jenkins emphasised how this music reflected an interest in playing around with tempo and ‘melodic aspects of songs’ - or to use his words, the ‘endearing parts of songs’ that his listeners liked (singing along with it, even if they didn’t understand it). ‘It’s about not being locked into the structure, or time signature’ and ‘creating something new,’ he said. ‘Fall through’ is arguably a supremely artful take on protest music, but it is also intensely private, while reaching out.  

To conclude, I liked this description from a FACT interview that captures something of Mick Jenkins' character and temperament: 

‘Spend two days in Jenkins’ company and he will smile and laugh as much as the average person. And yet, he knows that most people assume he has a grouchy disposition. He says with a laugh that a 6’ 5” black man doesn’t really scream “comedian”; his stoic facial expression comes off as unapproachable.

'I don’t purposely project it,' he says. 'I understand how it could be perceived but it doesn’t bother me to change because that’s not who I am. My normal face, people will ask me what’s wrong. Well, nothing’s wrong. I’m just looking.'