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
Here’s a clip of Nigerian folk-hero, activist, outlaw, political dissident, self-professed ‘black president’, and Afro-beat inventor Fela Kuti. Kuti’s music is practically a rosetta stone when tracing the relationships between African music and reggae, soca, funk, soul, jazz, and other Western musical forms including proto-hip hop sounds.
Kuti has been compared to James Brown, Bob Marley, and George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic. Yet, in Nigeria and increasingly everywhere else, he is recognized as a singular artist who crafted something original and beyond comparison. He’s also widely recognized as a national hero, standing up to government corruption in Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s, and often paying dearly in doing so.
Yet apart from that, Kuti was a dynamic, seemingly tireless performer and recording artist, with marathon-length sets that tested the physical limits of his band, as well as his own. Perhaps his sociopolitical fervor fed his performances. Or perhaps, it was the other way around.
He was born Fela Ransome (later ‘Anikalapo’) Kuti in Nigeria, 1938, to a musical and politically anti-military family. Intially studying to be a physician, he travelled to London where he formed his first band in 1961. Taking traditional West African high life music and marrying it to the trad jazz and burgeoning R&B music he was hearing in the London clubs, he became the first preponent of what he called Afro-beat, which he then took back to Nigeria two years later.
While touring and recording with a new band Koola Lobitos, Kuti would spend nearly a year in the United States, where he became acquainted with the writings of Malcolm X and the philosophies of black nationalism. This would feed his desire for reform in his own country. Before returning to Africa, he would record The ’69 Los Angeles Sessionsalbum, which showcased his absorption of soul and funk into his traditionally Afro-centric sound. He would develop this sound into the 70s, forming a new band Africa 70, and establishing himself as something of an impressario, club owner, record producer, and patriarch of a compound in Lagos.
In the ensuing years, he preceded to create what is now something of a cultural legacy, passing along his trade as a musican, and his beliefs as a political activist, to his children, most notably Femi Kuti who continues to bear the Afro-beat torch. A notorious womaniser, Fela sired a sizable number of children from almost as many women. His lifestyle got the better of him, and he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997.
Although certainly not without his flaws, Kuti lived his convictions, while also being a musical innovator during some very troubling times in his home country, inspiring the population with his music as often as he could. While setting up a studio in Nigeria in the early 70s, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker rekindled a friendship with Kuti, whom he’d met when Kuti was in London in the early 60s. Baker often sat in on live gigs, which would go on for hours. In an interview with Ginger Baker about Fela Kuti, Baker had this to say:
He didn’t have any competitors. [laughs] There was nobody doing what Fela
was doing. It was just…heh…you had to go to Fela’s club to see that.
You didn’t see anybody that wasn’t moving. The whole place was jumping…
Here’s a clip of soul-funk emperors The Isley Brothers with their 1969 hit “It’s Your Thing”, surely one of the sweatiest, funkiest floor fillers in the history of sound.
I just love this tune, full of joie de vive and almost supernaturally funky. I love the flowing rhythm guitar lines, and the sexy horn shots. This is of course not to mention the bassline, a writhing, seething thing that defies you not to shake your hips. The song is used to great effect in Stephen Soderburgh’s heist picture Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, which also included their song “Fight the Power” in the soundtrack.
The band began in the 50s, starting out strictly as a gospel group before starting on a pop career. Their biggest hit from their early period is probably “Twist & Shout”, a tune which was arguably supplanted by the Beatles’ 1963 version of the song on their debut album. Yet, the Isleys had more tricks up their glittery sleeves, with another song called “Shout“, which is heard at wedding receptions across the nation and yet never gets stale. By 1969, the line-up of the band had changed, when younger siblings came into the fold, a period known as the “3+3” period. And the landscape of soul music had changed by then too. Luckily the infusion of new blood into the band would allow the Isleys to easily make the transition from early gospel-based pop, to a sound with a funkier edge.
The group had a string of hits in the 70s, particularly with their take on Seals & Crofts “Summer Breeze” being a massive hit in the UK, where they’d built a solid following. Their 1985 hit “Caravan of Love” was covered by British group The Housemartins, featuring one Norman Cook (AKA Fat Boy Slim), and future Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton.
And because of their vocal and instrumental prowess (Ernie Isley in particular is one of the world’s most underrated guitarists), they are a popular choice for sampling, up there with the JBs and Parliament-Funkadelic. Public Enemy, Notorius B.I.G, and Snoop Dogg are among the hip-hop artists who have sampled the Isley’s work.
Here’s a clip of Tom Tom Club’s infectious 1981 dance floor filler “Genius of Love”, taken from their self-titled debut album. This is the sound of early 80s dance music at its best, folks: funky, sexy, yet somehow more innocent than the dance music of today. To me, it’s the sound of adolescence.
The group is actually an off-shoot project as led by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, both of Talking Heads, expanding on the more funk-oriented interests of that parent band, along with an exploration of early hip hop textures. The ‘band’ Tom Tom Club was initially more of a collective than a traditional group, with Weymouth and Frantz acting as musical fulcrums for the contributions of guests.
It is important to note that on the New York club circuit in the late 70s-early 80s, dance music was the leader of the pack, and punk coming out of CBGBs, a scene in which the ‘Heads flourished, was just a stray pup trailing behind in comparison. Needless to say, this is a very New York track, as much as any music coming out of the punk clubs of the time. The world which this track typifies is where a young and hungry Madonna would make her name, and build her initial sound.
And of course, then there was the nascent hip hop scene, in which this track would play an important role too. It would be sampled heavily by disparate artists in that genre, starting with Grandmaster Flash and Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. It would later hit the mainstream in the 90s, when it was sampled for the Mariah Carey track “Fantasy”. That’s what I call a groove with mileage, despite what you may think of Mariah Carey.
Through the life of the Tom Tom Club ‘vehicle’, Weymouth and Frantz would release a number of albums spread out across the decades from ’81 to the 21st century, with the project becoming their main focus when Talking Heads broke up officially in 1991. They kept their eyes on the urban scene, using it as a sort of stylistic horizon while adding in influences from other genres. The project remains to be a going concern for the pair, recently playing shows with Devo, their early 80s classmates. Yet, this song marks their biggest mainstream success.