Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still. Read more
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
Listen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!
“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.
In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more
Listen to this track by five man Motown pop soul institution The Temptations. It’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, a smash hit single as taken from the group’s 1971 record The Sky’s The Limit. The song was a return to form for the group, hearkening back to their earlier Motown singles in the 1960s after a period of putting out records that featured a grittier and more updated sound. At the same time, this single was the end of an era, too.
A big part of this was the departure of lead singer Eddie Kendricks soon after this song was released, leaving the group to strike out on his own in the much the same way that his former colleague David Ruffin had done. This song was Kendricks’ swan song with the group, and he made it a doozy; a virtual solo performance with his fellow Temptations providing an empathetic Greek chorus behind a tragic narrative. Even his nemesis in the group at the time Otis Williams had to admit that Kendricks knocked it out of the park on this cut, one that would become one of their best-loved songs.
This tune would become a signature song for the Temps, and inspired a number of cover versions including one by the Rolling Stones that had that them covering a Motown hit well after their habit of doing so on one of their albums was long behind them. This song is notable for another reason, too; it’s emotional complexity as balanced with how relatable it is. Read more
Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more
Listen to this track by Chicago-born singer, dancer, author, actor, poet, activist, educator, and hip hop seed planter Camille Yarborough. It’s “But It Comes Out Mad”, the opening track to her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker. On this release, she mixes spoken word narratives mixed in with funk-soul grooves and impassioned singing, often cited as an influence to hip hop and to future R&B releases, mainly because it frames important aspects of the black experience in such an unflinching way.
Yarborough’s voice in the mainstream is possibly most recognized by the jubilant “Take Yo’ Praise”, famously sampled by Norman Cook under his Fatboy Slim moniker, and his monster dance hit “Praise You” from 1998, one of the most empowering dance tracks of that decade, with Yarborough’s voice being central. That original song of Yarborough’s is also full of victory and joy, a love song to one person, maybe, but also to be applied to an entire culture who had seen terrible adversity and had survived it; slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights.
To contrast that, “But It Comes Out Mad” is something of a balance to “Take Yo’ Praise” in that respect, starting off the album and setting a stark tone that goes more in depth about that same struggle on a more granular level. Read more
Listen to this song by widely acknowledged gospel-blues pioneer and Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s “Didn’t It Rain”, a gospel standard in this case delivered live in Manchester, England in 1964. This peformance is featured on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours.
This 1964 version of the tour featured some of the pioneers of urban and rural blues at the time, including Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and others. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s segment was filmed by Granada Television at disused Wilbraham Road station, fixed up to look like an American sharecropper’s porch in the American South. Two-hundred onlookers in the audience sat opposite the station platform that served as a stage. In typical British tradition, it rained during the performance. But, after it rained, Sister Rosetta performed this tune, a tale of Noah and his ark, of redemption, and condemnation.
Among other things, this performance reminded audiences of what they’d come to know as rhythm & blues and even rock ‘n’ roll in their purest forms. But even then, not many people at the time were fully aware of her role in creating a sound that served as a pillar for those musical movements, set in place when Elvis was still potty training. Read more
Listen to this song by international citizen and crossover R&B/Hip Hop/dance-pop maven Neneh Cherry. It’s “Buffalo Stance”, her biggest hit and featured on her landmark 1989 album Raw Like Sushi. The song was a smash success all over the world, scoring big numbers on the pop and R&B charts in the US, the UK, and even here in the Great White North.
The song itself is an almalgam of musical styles, and isn’t really affliliated with any one of them. There are some pretty broad strands of musical traditions that can be plucked out of this song. Soul, electro, and hip hop are certainly among them, with those strains of music growing more and more in stature as it was imported from the United States to scenes in the UK where it was also developing domestically by the end of the eighties. I think a lot of post punk textures can be found pretty prominently in here as well, with lots of light and dark textures weaving in and out of each other. Along with all of these ingredients, “Buffalo Stance” proved to be pretty adaptable to all kinds of musical channels, popular as a video, a single on the radio, and certainly in the clubs.
But, what is this song actually about, and what is its real relationship with its singer? It is certainly rooted in ideas about finding common ground, and finding likeminded people with whom to surround oneself. But, it also has an aspect to it that is often missing in pop music that is made to dance to; a political edge.
Listen to this track by British R&B soul-jazz gurus The Graham Bond Organisation. It’s “Wade In The Water” a version of a traditional song that appears on their second, and final, album The Sound Of ’65, released that very year in March. The band consists of Bond on organ and alto saxophone, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor saxophone, Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker on the kit.
Along with Alexis Corner’s Blues Incorporated, The Graham Bond Organisation (misspeling of Oxford English “orginisation” is deliberate, everyone …) was a very well-respected unit on the R&B scene in London from the early to mid 1960s. If the Beatles and the Stones were the bands that the record buying public loved, then Graham Bond and his compatriots were just as beloved by their musician peers on the London club scene. For a time, even future jazz-fusion innovator John McLaughlin was a part of the band on guitar. For those looking for pure chops and blues authenticity that was so sought after at the time, then these guys were it.
As short-lived as this band was, they helped to sow the seeds of the progressive rock and jazz-rock movements in Britain that would flourish by the end of the sixties and into the seventies. As influential as they were, there was much trouble at the root for these guys when it came to personal demons. Read more
Listen to this track by three-man “hippie” hip hop crew from Long Island New York, De La Soul. It’s “The Magic Number”, a single as taken from their 1989 landmark album 3 Feet High and Rising. That record would stand as one of the signs that hip hop and rap were branching off in different directions by the end of the eighties, not only in the way that it was musically structured and textured, but also in terms of presentation and persona.
As the gangsta rap of NWA, and the politicized “CNN for black people” approach of Public Enemy began to make headway by that same era of the late eighties, this record was full of bounce and whimsy, referencing source material outside of hip hop’s traditional wheelhouse, including a sample from a song by Johnny Cash (“5 Feet High And Rising”) found on this track that also suggested a title to the album. Despite the off the beaten track musical choices it represents, 3 Feet High And Rising is commonly cited as a record that served as a bridge from the 1980s into the next decade of the 1990s, and a leap further into the mainstream for hip hop in general. Not bad for a debut record.
As innovative as the record is, De La Soul adhered to many of the tenets of the genre that still can be found in hip hop today; self-reference, self-awareness, and breaking down the fourth wall to remind listeners that that are listening to a record made by artists. The innovation part of the equation on this song is connected those ideas to some things that is found in music of all kinds; mystery and wonder! Read more