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
Listen to this track by Australian thrift shop denizens and razor-sharp sampling jesters The Avalanches. It’s their 2000 hit “Frontier Psychiatrist”, as taken from their (to date) sole full length record Since I Left You. The song would place on UK and US charts by 2001, providing critical and commercial success.
It’s difficult to broadly apply the term “songwriting” to this track in the traditional sense, just because it is made up entirely of found recordings from across a variety of recorded music streams. This includes comedy recordings, with the central one being Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster’s titular sketch which is heavily quoted, along with sound effects records, instructional recordings, Mariachi music, film scores, movie dialogue (John Waters’ Polyester to be exact), and sixties Enoch Light Orchestra flourishes all mixed in to make a glorious whole. How this was not a complete mess is a tribute to how deftly arranged the samples actually are. Sampling nay-sayers take note: not everyone can do this well.
I think another aspect of this song that is worth noting is that it helpfully undercuts what electronica and dance music had come to mean by the beginning of the century. A big part of that has to do with its varied and often unexpected source material, of course. But, another aspect of what makes this tune stand out is simply this: it’s hilarious! Read more
Listen to this track by LA-based concern with a penchant for vivid narratives Eels, led by head songwriter E (neé Mark Oliver Everett). It’s “Susan’s House”, the second single off of the band’s debut record Beautiful Freak in 1996.
This song, and its fellow single “Novocaine For The Soul” made a splash particularly in Britain where both of singles gained top ten chart showings. The success of this song surpassed that first single in the UK, quoting a piano figure from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Love Finds It’s Own Way“, and generally being a langourous and restful-sounding record, released in May of 1997 just as summer approached.
But, of course, there is plenty of restlessness to be found here in the urban landscape as traversed by the narrator as he makes his way to the titular location. There is plenty of tragedy, too. It makes one wonder whether this song isn’t just about a specific journey, but alludes to a greater one, too. Read more