Listen to this track by British funk soul collective and acid jazz scenesters Jamiroquai. It’s “Too Young To Die”, the second single as taken from their 1993 debut Emergency On Planet Earth. This version is the album version. A shorter radio version was released, scoring a top ten showing on the British charts.
The song combines the feel for early to mid-seventies grooves, complete with brass and string arrangements, with some unique ingredients of their own (a full-time didgeridoo player!). To the forefront is singer and principle Jason “Jay” Kay, who’s vocal stylings evoke a classic Stevie Wonder sound for which he was sometimes unfavourably compared. Stevie is a tough act to match. Yet Jamiroquai hit at just the right time, as British acid-jazz was gaining steam in the early nineties, also including acts like The Brand New Heavies, The James Taylor Quartet, and Ronny Jordan. After that scene petered out, Jamiroquai were still enjoying healthy chart action.
This song remains a highlight in the string of chart hits Jamiroquai put out during the nineties. Its retro feel is certainly musical in nature, full of jazzy chord progressions, funky bass, soul brass, and disco strings. But, the subject matter and the way that it is presented is pretty retro, too. It’s a political song that you can dance to. And it represented a shift from the paradigm of eighties and into a new decade, too.
Jamiroquai appeared on the scene and remained there due to the strength of singles like this one. This one is my favourite of theirs, a song that deals in a theme that perhaps sounds naive today in terms of approach; the evils of war and the fear it evokes in the young. Anti-war songs seemed as retro as seventies soul references did by 1993. Yet, at the same time, that theme is still very relatable no matter what era you happened to be hearing it in. It’s possible that this was intentional, that the anti-war theme was designed to connect with Vietnam war-era sentiments, just as the music was meant to connect with that same era in order to capture a classic appeal. But, there were certainly wars on the radar in the early nineties, including “Operation Desert Storm” and the Bosnian War just to name two, making this song politically relevant, as well as highly and joyfully danceable.
Intentions aside, I found this approach to be welcome. I liked the idea of a chart song you could dance to that talks about some manner of political engagement to curtail young deaths in war at the same time. Built right into it is the idea that dancing, singing, art and celebration are the reasons to be alive in the first place. And frankly at the time, I felt like there weren’t enough songs on the radio that dealt with anything that was going on in the world in any meaningful way. Whether written in earnest or as a cynical stylistic move (ultimately – who cares which?), this tune reminded me that pop music could still be a way of communicating an important cultural and political idea to an audience.
Another aspect of this is that I loved hearing those jazzy progressions, and the full arrangements using strings and brass. Maybe this was about the timing too. But, one of the great things about music in the nineties was that real instruments were being used again more than they’d been in the eighties, a time when synths and digital sound were exclusively thought of as the wave of the future, particularly where R&B was concerned. Instead, it turned out that the future wasn’t quite as linear as that. Indeed, going back in time and borrowing elements from older eras appeared to be completely green lit by the time the nineties rolled around in R&B tunes, and continuing in hip hop as well. This is still in effect today in songs like “Get Lucky“,”Happy”, and “Uptown Funk”.
That advantage is certainly on display in this song, with the textures and grooves of the aforementioned Stevie Wonder, plus artists like Roy Ayers and Terry Callier (both of whom were celebrated on the acid jazz scene) coming to the forefront. Even beyond the life of that scene, the principle remained; the idea of “old” music was very quickly becoming an old idea itself. And this was in an age before listeners could make their discoveries on iTunes and Spotify, and when these platforms had codified a new era of musical possibilities when turning to decades past for inspiration became common. It turned out that this cyclical trend was the real future after all.
Jamiroquai are an active concern today. You can catch up to news about tours and release dates at jamiroquai.com