Archive for June, 2008

House Music- The Real Story

Title: House Music…The Real Story
Author: Jesse Saunders (with James Cummins)
Publisher: Publish America
Date: 2007
ISBN: 1-60474-001-9

House Music…The Real Story (172 p.) is equally an autobiography of Chicago house music pioneer Jesse Saunders and a history of the development of “house music,” the electronic dance music form that was first developed by club DJs in New York. Saunders was one of the first DJ’s to commercially release a house music single, and was largely responsible for the develop of the genre in Chicago. Over ten years ago, the City of Chicago recognized the contributions that Jesse and house music had made to the culture of the city by proclaiming July 17, 1997, as “Jesse Saunders and Pioneers of House Music Day” in Chicago.

Saunders’ “behind the music” tour through the early days of Chicago’s house music scene is especially important due to the current void of information on the genre (despite Mayor Richard M. Daley’s proclamation, nothing much seems to have happened since 1997 in terms of documenting or celebrating house music). For lovers of Chicago house music, Jesse’s memoir is an intriguing look at how this assorted and colorful cast of characters– including Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, among others–fell into creating a new genre of music. Following is additional information from the official press release:

“Jesse Saunders’ story is one of the most important in the history of popular culture. From his hometown of Chicago, Jesse created the first original House music record and launched the House music movement across the land. Eventually, his style of music would come to sell millions of records and CDs, take over the popular consciousness of millions of kids across the earth and cement the electronic revolution in music. Written with author James Cummins, this autobiography tells the story of how it all happened. From the streets of Chicago to the biggest music labels in Los Angeles, California, it follows Jesse Saunders as he recreates the musical landscape of America. Touching on the celebrity culture of the 1980s and ’90s and into the twenty-first century, you will read many shocking things about some of your favorite artists. Jesse Saunders is an artist whose influence on modern music will never be forgotten.”

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For those who aren’t as familiar with the formation of house music in the 1980s, Jesse’s account is a worthy introduction. House Music…The Real Story represents what the genre needs more of–pioneers willing to share their own stories.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review June 10th, 2008

Freddy Fresh Presents The Rap Records

Title: Freddy Fresh Presents The Rap Records
Author: Fredrick Schmid (aka Freddy Fresh)
Publisher: Nerby Publishing
Date: 2008; 2nd Rev. Ed.

Freddy Fresh recently published a revised and expanded version of his “Utlimate Vinyl Resource Book” for rap records. The first edition, published in 2004 in a limited printing of only 5,500 copies, received an Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Best Research in Recorded Rock or Rap Music. To the best of my knowledge, this was not only the first, but remains the only discography in print (at least in English) that covers 12″ rap and hip hop pressings (and the occasional 7″ 45 rpm).

The newly revised and expanded edition, at 744 pages, includes over 2,500 full color photos of record labels along with thousands of new titles, many sent to Freddy by collectors and DJs from around the world. Particular attention has been given to expanding the coverage of UK labels and artists (primarily from 1883-1993), as well as underground and private pressings from the U.S. According to the book’s preface, Freddy has maintained a database for over 25 years and tracks every rap record in his personal collection as well as every single rap record that he has been able to trace and verify. The primary focus is on rap titles released between 1979-1994, though later releases are occasionally included as are tracks that would be classified as electronic dance music. Whether or not Freddy plans to expand beyond the mid-1990s in future editions is unclear. There is certainly no shortage of vinyl being pressed in the 21st century.

The primary organization of the discography is alphabetical by record company, and the state or country (and occasionally the city) of origin is provided for most. Major rap labels such as Cold Chillin,’ Sugarhill, Tommy Boy, Jive and Def Jam are, of course, covered but do not take up as many pages as one might think. Open the book to just about any page and you can find entries are for labels that released only a handful of records: Catawba (South Carolina), Devaki (Cleveland), Freeze (New York), Heatwave (Santa Barbara, CA), JBM (Jacksonville, FL), Last Coast (Houston), One Little Indian (England), Straight Black (San Francisco), Three G’z (Michigan), Under Cover Productions (Chicago), Up Records (South Carolina), Urba Beat (Virginia), Wizatron (St. Louis), etc. Obviously this is an extremely useful tool for studying regional output. Entries under each company heading are then listed by catalog matrix number, followed by artist, song titles, release date, and occasional notes pertaining to genres, artists, format, etc. A “Star rating” (i.e., a 1-5 star ranking) has also been assigned to selected titles, though it is unclear what this is based on (the author’s personal recommendation?).

The master index is alphabetical by artist, followed by label and the geographic location of the company. No page numbers are given, but in most cases it is fairly easy to locate each artist under the label entry. Also beware that all names are given in direct order; that is, personal names such as Rick Rubin are entered thus, rather than last name, first name. This is easy to excuse since in the world of hip hop it can often be impossible to distinguish the artists’ real names from their “nom de rap.” Harder to excuse is the practice of including initial articles, thus there are several pages in the index beginning with “The.”

Freddy Fresh Presents The Rap Records is an invaluable resource for the serious collector of hip hop on vinyl, as well as for anyone researching hip hop. If you’ve only delved into commercial CD releases in the past, this discography will most certainly open your eyes to a whole new world of vinyl.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 10th, 2008

Somebody Scream!

Title: Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power
Author: Marcus Reeves
Publisher: Faber & Faber, Inc.
ISBN: 0571211402
Date: 2008

While hip hop music is known for many things, some good and some bad, often overlooked is its politics. Like other forms of Black music, hip hop has always reflected socio-political issues and the ideas of Black Americans. In Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, Marcus Reeves explores hip hop’s political nature over the course of 300 pages.

A native of New Jersey, Reeves is a journalist who has followed hip hop since its early days and has professionally covered the music for over fifteen years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and Vibe, among others. He was also deputy music editor at The Source and a columnist for Russell Simmons’ One World magazine.

Reeves features a number of major hip hop artists in his effort to demonstrate how rap music was “a unifying expression for the post-Black Power generation and, eventually, the world” (xi). Artists such as Run-DMC, N.W.A., Tupac, and Eminem are the means by which Reeves discusses hip hop’s political nature. Particularly compelling is the chapter on Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Death Row Records titled “Gangsta Chic.” In it, Reeves discusses how Death Row crafted the atmosphere and attitudes of the post-1992 L.A. Riots era into commercial music that revolutionized the hip hop market. Reeves does an excellent job of presenting how Death Row records was situated within the context of a volatile, urban Los Angeles.

While context is definitely one of the strong points of the book, it is also of the problems. In many of the chapters, Reeves provides unnecessary historical information regarding the artists he features. For example, the founding of N.W.A. has already been rehashed numerous times, so the inclusion of these details seems redundant and somewhat unimportant to the overall scope of the book. This is a minor distraction, however, and takes little away from the book. Reeves is very successful in presenting hip hop as an artistic manifestation of the political ideals of the post-Black Power generation.

Overall, Somebody Scream! is very informative and engaging, and provides a different lens through which one can view this often maligned and misunderstood culture. This book is recommended to both scholars and fans of hip hop music and culture.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review June 10th, 2008

Wailing Blues

Title: Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers
Author: John Masouri
Publisher: London ; New York: Omnibus Press
Date: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84609-689-1 (582 pp.)

John Masouri, a veteran reviewer of reggae and related music as well as a journalist and a frequent contributor to radio and television documentaries, presents the story of Bob Marley’s band, the Wailers, in a work of particular importance to readers interested in the present state of reggae music and Bob Marley’s legacy. After the Wailers’ signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records led to the departure of longtime partners Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley turned increasingly to bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett for collaboration. “Fams” and his brother Carlton, the band’s drummer, had developed the drum and bass technique at the heart of the Wailers’ sound while playing in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band, the Upsetters. The Barretts and the rest of the Upsetters promptly left Scratch’s employ when given the opportunity to become Marley’s permanent band.

Masouri details the whirlwind events of the ‘70s as Bob Marley and the Wailers introduced reggae music to the world. In a relationship often characterized by spiritual concerns relating to Rastafarism, the band, and especially Family Man, entered into contracts and agreements with Marley, many of which were never written down or vetted by lawyers. Marley, “Fams,” and all involved believed in what they were doing and when Bob pledged to take care that all of the proceeds were shared and all contributing musicians would be generously remunerated, there was no reason to think differently. Then Bob died of cancer.

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the aging Wailers have fallen into poverty and poor health. Even before Bob’s untimely death, there were signs that financial considerations promised by Marley were not necessarily forthcoming from Island Records, which now controlled the flow of money to the band. Signing with Island had given Bob Marley and the Wailers far better distribution, publicity, facilities, and management than other Jamaican bands, but it also introduced accountants and lawyers into the band’s lives. Sadly there was also no assistance to the band members’ plights forthcoming from Marley’s estate, now controlled by Bob’s widow Rita and his eldest son Ziggy.

The first half of Masouri’s book is an exhilarating biography of a band reaching worldwide acclaim, at once promoting reggae to the world, and all but eclipsing the rest of the reggae artists trying to reach the mainstream pop music market. The second half tells the long, twisted tale of the legal pursuit of the benefits “Fams” and the rest of the Wailers felt were due them according to far-reaching understandings, but pitifully few signed, legal documents. Similarly, though Masouri presents a comprehensive look at the situation, his book does not offer the convenience of a bibliography, although he does include a one-page list of acknowledgements.

Masouri’s attention to detail is admirable, and in his hands the legal rigmarole that is at the heart of the story reads tolerably well. But the real story here may be the unkind portrait it paints of Rita Marley and her disinterest in living up to the spiritual message associated with Bob Marley, his life and music, despite her current (and very successful) efforts to market all things Bob. The Marley estate is now worth many times what it was worth when Bob died, thanks in large part to constant reissuing and repackaging of the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. This negative report of how Bob’s legacy is working out may complicate the ongoing marketing of his music by casting doubt on the spiritual aspect of the whole operation. But whatever happens in the contretemps between Bob’s former sidemen and the Marley estate and Island Records, Masouri has contributed a much needed look behind the music.

Posted by Mike Tribby

View review June 10th, 2008

Deep Roots Music

Title: Reggae Nashville: Deep Roots Music Vol. 1-3
Artists: Various
Label: Dist. by MVD Visual
Format: Color, Compilation, DVD-Video, NTSC
Region: All regions
Language: English
Catalog No: MVD 49-51
Year: 2007-2008

Deep Roots Music, an extraordinary documentary on Jamaican reggae music that was originally filmed in the early ’80s as a six part series for the BBC, was recently released on three DVDs (each including two of the original segments). Director Howard Johnson takes us on a musical journey through the complex history and culture of reggae music. Included are countless interviews and vintage footage of some of Jamaica’s most prolific musicians, producers and cultural icons. What is remarkable about this series is that it deviates from the customary documentary format and instead is filmed with a process oriented theme that gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective to Jamaican music and culture. The series is narrated by the late British reggae icon Mikey Dread, who provides the minimal commentary tying the segments together. Each DVD contains two thematic 50 minute segments skillfully blending the music and culture together:

Revival/Ranking Sounds: parts 1 & 2

Revival, explores reggae’s roots and stylistic influences, including Kumina, Poco, Burru, Mento, and Ska. Featured is archival and never-before-seen footage of the Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, and Count Ossie, along with interviews with cultural historians that help bridge the gap from African music to reggae. Ranking Sounds unveils the origins of dee-jaying and toasting by introducing the mobile sound system and the birth of the Jamaican recording industry. Featured in this segment is Count Matchoucki, U-Roy, Prince Jammy, Prince Buster, and a rare interview with Duke Reid’s widow.

Bunny Lee Story/Black Ark: parts 3&4

Bunny Lee Story is an intimate look inside legendary producer Bunny Lee’s studio plus conversations with Prince Jammy, Delroy Wilson, Jackie Edwards, and Wayne Smith. Black Ark looks at the influence of Rastafari on reggae music, featuring rare footage of His Imperial Majesty Haile Salassie 1 during his visit to Jamaica, as well as Nyahbinghi drumming, the Mighty Diamonds and Bob Marley. Also provided is an in-depth look into the creative cosmos that is Lee “Scratch” Perry and his Black Ark studio.

Following is an excerpt from this segment, including opening and closing credits:

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Money In My Pocket/Ghetto Riddim: parts 5&6

Money In My Pocket shows the connection between politics, commerce and music. Featured in this segment is the footage of the infamous Bob Marley & the Wailers concert where he united rival political candidates during the bitter and violent campaign of 1978. Also highlighted in this segment is a close look at the “prince of reggae,” Dennis Brown, in his studio. Ghetto Riddim examines the process of finding new talent by showcasing street corner auditions, including an afternoon at Jack Ruby’s as he holds his weekly auditions outside the gates of his studio.

Deep Roots Music is a crucial series that provides much greater depth than most documentaries on Jamaican music. The interviews and rare footage alone make the series one of the most definitive resources on reggae music to date.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review June 10th, 2008

Stepping: The Documentary

Title: Stepping: The Documentary
Directors: Marshall Blackwell and Norman Whiteburn
Format: DVD, NTSC, all regions
Label: CTG Films; dist. by MVD Visual
Date: 2008

Stepping is a type of percussive dance that has its origins in the culture of Historically Black Fraternities and Sororities. In stepping, the whole body becomes an instrument as music is made by the combination of handclaps, stomps, and other actions. Members of African-American fraternities and sororities have traditionally performed step routines at parties, exhibitions, and competitions. Recently, other communities, including Latino Greek Letter Organizations and church youth groups, have begun to organize competitive step teams. The release of the 2006 film Stomp the Yard raised the visibility of stepping, bringing it to mainstream.

In Stepping: The Documentary, filmmakers Marshall Blackwell and Norman Whiteburn detail the history and aesthetics of stepping, especially as it relates to Black Greek culture. The film is primarily comprised of step performances and interviews with Black Greeks, which allows the art and the artists to speak for themselves. There is a very strong balance between context and performance which provides the viewer with the full scope of stepping culture. The history of each Black Greek organization is presented in great detail and accompanied by elaborate step routines. All of the interviews with Black Greeks are extremely engaging and add a very personal feel to the film itself, while providing an intimate look at stepping.

While Stepping provides a good overview of a historically under-explored cultural performance, the documentary does have a few problems. The film focuses on Black Greeks, but does not feature all of the Divine 9, the nickname for the nine most prominent Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations. Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Black Greek organization, is discussed heavily, but there is no corresponding step routine for them. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek sorority, is not featured at all. Additionally, there could have been more examples of how stepping exists outside of Black Greek culture. These omissions render the documentary somewhat incomplete.

These issues aside, Stepping: The Documentary is a very informative film. The filmmakers did an excellent job of keying in on important aspects of the performance and the culture. This DVD is recommended for anyone interesting in stepping as it is a good introduction to the art form and Black Greek culture.

View Trailer:

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Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review June 10th, 2008

Stax Does the Beatles

Title: Stax Does the Beatles
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30390
Date: 2008

Stax Does the Beatles is something of a companion CD to Stax Does Motown, which was released at the same time (and is also reviewed in this issue). The compilation aptly illustrates how the musical genres of rock and soul have drawn inspiration from one another, while at the same time bridging the racial divide that existed in music up until that time. British groups such as the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by the blues, especially the electronic Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, but also did cover versions of Southern soul hits, such as Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me.” It was only a matter of time before inspiration began to flow in the opposite direction. By the late 1960s, Motown and Stax artists were covering a variety of songs made popular during the British Invasion, one of the most notable being Otis Redding’s version of Mick Jagger’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (check out his incredible live performance on the recent DVD release Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway).

This new compilation includes a small sampling of “soulful covers” of some of the Beatles’ hit songs that were reworked in the Stax studios. The tracks include an assortment of vocal and instrumental performances. Booker T. & The MGs, the Stax house band led by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, perform “Got To Get You Into My Life” (previously unreleased), “Eleanor Rigby” (released on Soul Limbo in 1968), “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna” (the latter two originally released on the 1969 album The Booker T. Set). Steve Cropper, the MGs famed guitarist, also contributes an instrumental version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Another Stax house band, the Mar-Keys, perform their 1971 cover of “Let It Be,” while the Bar-Kays are featured on “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” (these tracks appear to have been recorded after the 1967 plane crash that claimed the lives of Otis Redding and most of the original members of the Bar-Kays).

All of the above adds up to a CD that is largely instrumental (9 of the 15 tracks), which though enjoyable, was something of a disappointment. In terms of vocal covers, the highlight of the CD is without a doubt the opening track, “Daytripper,” a previously unreleased studio version performed by the late, great Otis Redding. David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who teamed up to write many hit songs for Stax, both went on to record for the label. Featured here is Porter’s thoroughly enjoyable hard-driving cover of “Help” with backing provided by a Motown-style female trio, as well as Hayes’ somewhat meandering arrangement of “Something.” Carla Thomas, another of Stax’s major stars, performs a previously unreleased version of “Yesterday,” recorded live at the Bohemian Cavern (this is NOT included on the 2007 jazz-oriented CD Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns from the same 1967 performance). A pleasant surprise was provided by two of the lesser known artists in the Stax stable. Reggie Millner’s interpretation of “And I Love Her,” which has never appeared on CD, is punctuated by frequent falsetto bursts in the style later made famous by Michael Jackson. In John Gary Williams’ funky cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” from 1972, he inserts “a devotional spoken monologue” mid-song, in a similar manner to the opening of Diana Ross’s 1970 cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Noticeably missing from the CD are Otis Redding’s version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” first released in 1982 on Recorded Live: Previously Unreleased Performances (revised, expanded, and reissued by Stax in 2002 as Good To Me: Live at the Whisky A Go Go, Vol. 2 ), and the fabulous version of “Hey Jude” recorded by Wilson Pickett with guitar accompaniment provided by Duane Allman. OK, I know the latter was issued by Atlantic and not Stax, but it certainly must be considered in any discussion of Southern soul covers of the Beatles songbook.

According to the liner notes by noted rock historian Richie Unterberger, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein explored the possibility of recording what would become the Revolver album at the Stax studios in Memphis, and actually visited the studio in 1966 before scrapping the plan due to security issues. The Beatles and various Stax artists would finally meet for the first time in London in March of 1967, during the Stax/Volt Revue’s European tour. But aside from Steve Cropper’s later collaborations with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the official alliance between the Beatles and Stax studios never happened. Too bad.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 10th, 2008

Soulsville Sings Hitsville

Title: Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30391
Date: 2008

In his book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Record (1997), popular music historian Rob Bowman documents the story of Memphis-based Stax Records. Bowman describes the story of Stax as “about as improbable and unforeseeable as any tale could possibly be.” Originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart, Stax from its conception was racially integrated in all facets of its operations. Stax was also instrumental in establishing Southern soul and the south Memphis sound. The signature sound and style are attributed to its house band, which consisted of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the horn section from the Mar-Keys. Additionally, the Stax sound was also derived from the physical characteristics of its recording studio. Essentially a converted movie theatre, the studio had a slanted floor with sound proofing affixed to the interior walls and sound equipment installed on the stage.

Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records in essence brings the “city” cousin home to the south, and reintroduces him to long lost country roots. Containing 15 tracks, this compilation provides the Southern soul singer’s interpretation of northern soul songs from the Motown catalog.

“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was first recorded by The Four Tops in (1966) and by Diana Ross in (1971). The Mar-Keys’ instrumental version gives this classic Motown tune a rockin’ edge by implementing a couple of rock riffs along with other guitar effects, and places the solo line with the tenor saxophone. Although the song has been altered from its original form, you are still able to recognize the distinguishable Motown flavor which is illustrated through the accents of the tambourine.

Originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” has been revived and given a new walk, so to speak, by The Soul Children. With its heavy blues and gospel influences, you find it hard to resist the urge to snap your fingers as you leave the church revival to pay your dues at the local juke joint.

Other notable tracks include: “You’ve Got to Earn It” by the Staple Singers; “Stop! In the Name of Love” by Margie Joseph; “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by David Porter; “Can I Get a Witness” by Calvin Scott; and “Chained” by Mavis Staples.

Posted by Terence La Nier II

View review June 10th, 2008

The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes, and Rarities

Title: The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes, and Rarities
Artists: Ashford & Simpson
Label: Rhino/WEA
Catalog No.:
Date: 2008

Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson are known as one of the most successful songwriting duos in American popular music. Married to each other for over forty years and writing music for just as long, Ashford & Simpson have an incomparable music legacy that reaches back to an amazing string of Motown duets that they wrote and produced for the legendary Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Those timeless classics include: “Aint No Mountain High Enough,” “Aint Nothing Like the Real Thing,” Your Precious Love,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” With their combination of vivid lyrical imagery and innovative musical composition, these songs still sound fresh forty years later.

Over the years Ashford & Simpson have contributed their songwriting/producing Midas touch to countless songs for other artists, yet all the while they’ve maintained their own vocal and instrumental careers. Perhaps the pinnacle of their popular music career was the 1984 Capitol Records single “Solid,” off their album by the same title. Ashford & Simpson also recorded some gems for Warner Bros. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now Warner Bros. has decided to re-release a double-disc collection of these hit songs including “Stayfree,” “Tried, Tested, and Found True” and “Bourgié Bourgié.” Disc one includes extended versions of the originals while disc two features remixes of the songs.

I admit that I was guardedly optimistic about the outcome of this project, but what put me at ease was the all-star list of DJ/producers included on the project. Famed producers like Joey Negro, Joe Claussell, and Dimitri from Paris achieve that difficult balance of preserving the best parts of the song while adding a spice of something new. The brushed up Latin percussion and bass on “Tried, Tested, and Found True” by Simphouse intensifies the groove into an unabashedly infectious dance hit, while Joey Negro’s extended breaks on “Love Don’t Always Make it Right” help the song to come together very nicely. The remixes are great, but so are the originals which were given painstaking attention by Valerie Simpson’s brother, Jimmy Simpson. By listening to disc one first, one realizes that a great remix has to start with a great song. Since songs like “Stayfree” are such wonderful compositions and productions to begin with, contemporary producers have many sounds and textures they can build upon.

If it sounds like I really liked this compilation, I did. And what makes this project even more enjoyable is knowing that Ashford & Simpson really appreciated the results. In the liner notes they include their thoughts on creating the originals, the production process for the remixes, and the final product. In my opinion executive producer Johnny “D” DeMairo and Warner Bros. got this one right–they were able represent the old while assembling a very competent team to unveil the new. The result is a two disc compilation that anyone can dance straight through.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review June 10th, 2008

The Blues Legacy: ‘Lost & Found’ Series

Title: Chris Barber Presents The Blues Legacy: ‘Lost and Found’ Series (CD Vol. 1-3)
Artists: The Chris Barber Band with various others
Label: Blues Legacy
Catalog No.: 5067X, 5068X, 5069X
Date: 3/9/2008

Chris Barber is not a household name in the United States blues scene, but he was an incredibly influential figure in Britain’s popular music scene in the 1950s and continues today to be an active performer and bandleader. Barber, a jazz trombonist, was inspired by the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band to form his first Barber New Orleans Band in 1949 at the age of nineteen. A steadfast traditionalist in that sub-genre of jazz, Barber also developed a strong interest in the blues. He thus went to great effort, particularly between the late 1950s and mid-60s, to bring a number of legendary blues performers from the United States to Britain to collaborate in recordings and live concerts with his band.

This latest release from the new British-based Blues Legacy label is framed as “Lost & Found,” an endlessly compelling trope for traditional music of any kind (but particularly, it seems, for the blues); it is the musical equivalent of discovering hidden treasure. Sometimes this is the real deal, however, and sometimes it is fool’s gold (or at least somebody else’s). Thankfully, ‘Lost & Found’ is the former. As is the mandate of liner notes in this ilk, they lay out the story of discovery: Chris Barber came across some old ¼” magnetic tapes that he had believed were lost or erased when he was shipping one of his American cars from storage for restoration. He dug up a number of these recordings, and thus was born the Chris Barber Presents The Blues Legacy ‘Lost & Found’ series, released now on three separate CDs.

A wide variety of influential blues figures are prominently featured on the CDs. Volume 1 (23 tracks) features Sister Rosetta Tharpe with The Chris Barber Band on tracks 1-10 (1957) and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on tracks 11-23 (1958). Volume 2 (23 tracks) features Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee alone and with The Chris Barber Band & Ottilie Patterson on tracks 2-6 (1958), Muddy Waters with Otis Spann and The Chris Barber Band on tracks 8-17 (1958), Champion Jack Dupree with The Chris Barber Band on tracks 19-21 (1959) and Louis Jordan with The Chris Barber Band and Ottilie Patterson on track 23 (1962). Volume 3 (29 tracks) features Sonny Boy Williamson with The Chris Barber Band on track 2, and tracks 4-13 (1964), Jimmy Witherspoon with The Chris Barber Band, Humphrey Lyttelton, and Ronnie Scott on tracks 15-17 (1964), Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin and The Chris Barber Band on tracks 19, 21, and 23-24 (1964) and Jimmy Witherspoon with The Chris Barber Band on tracks 25-29 (1980).

I think it is necessary for recordings presented as historically important to provide at least brief notes on the time period referenced in the liner notes. The liner notes for all three ‘Lost & Found’ CDs do not provide this bigger picture. While some of this is embedded, the notes are really more a collection of fragmented anecdotes by Barber about the specific performances featured on the CDs. For this reason, I will first offer some context here before moving onto the performances themselves.

At a time of economic hardship (an aftermath of post-WWII reconstruction), British youth became fascinated with the media exports of the booming U.S. economy, including early rock and roll. Barber’s interest in a more traditional style of jazz was a part of his interest in the preservation of historical sounds more generally as well as jazz and its roots more specifically. This personal drive developed into a strong interest in blues and blues-based music from the United States, and in pursuit of his passion, Barber exposed the blues to countless others by organizing concert tours in Britain with many of its most talented artists. Today he stands as a pivotal figure in launching the British blues subculture that quickly blossomed into a historical movement. British blues and the rock that grew out of it forever changed the face of popular music in the United States, Britain, and the all over the world.

So the recordings on these CDs are of immense historical significance – reason alone, for some perhaps, to pick them up – but they are certainly not representative of what was happening more broadly, neither what came before nor after. This is because these CDs bring together an unusual and largely unprecedented mix of performances. Though sometimes performing by themselves, the various blues artists featured here are usually backed by The Chris Barber Band’s tight New Orleans jazz sound! This collaboration is always interesting, and is sometimes even riveting, intense, and powerful – as when Sister Rosetta Tharpe leads Barber’s band on “When the Saints Go Marching In” on Volume 1 (but remember, that is standard rep for New Orleans jazz) or Louis Jordan’s single appearance on the recordings with Ottilie Patterson and the rest of the band on “T’aint Nobody’s Business” on Volume 2. It is, however, at other times jarring, incompatible, and incomprehensible – take Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Howlin’ for My Baby” with Hubert Sumlin and the band or Sonny Boy Williamson with Ottilie Patterson and the band on “This Little Light of Mine” (both on Volume 3).

These CDs, for the most part (sometimes voices are much too low compared to the band, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar is inaudible on her solo tracks) sound fantastic. The historically-minded will enjoy their significance and the eclectic-minded will probably get a kick out of the unusual genre-mashing going on here (as I did); for the die-hard blues fans, however, better and more “bluesy” recordings exist for most of the artists featured.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott

View review June 10th, 2008

Rising Down

Title: Rising Down
Artist: The Roots
Label: Def Jam
Catalog No.: B0011138-02
Release date: April 29, 2008

On this, their eighth studio album, Grammy Award-winning artists The Roots once again prove their ability to continually reinvent their sound while retaining a sharp and heady approach to hip-hop. Philadelphia’s finest expand on their collaborative tradition with what drummer and producer ?uestlove calls the “Noah’s Ark 2 of every animal” approach: they feature at least two guests on nearly every track. Newcomers Chrisette Michele and Wale join some of the Roots’ longtime friends–Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli–and other Philly veterans including Dice Raw, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Peedi Peedi, P.O.R.N. and Truck North.

While these guests provide multiple perspectives for the Roots Crew’s angrily conscientious vibe, ?uestlove and the production team underscore an uncompromising critical urgency with dark, buzzy synths and hammering beats. This is nowhere more evident than in the title cut. After an opening track that documents a heated argument among band members, “Rising Down” sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s a diatribe about everything from the diamond trade and greenhouse gasses to pharmaceuticals and racial stratification. The chorus mourns, “You don’t see that something’s wrong? Earth’s spinnin’ outta control! Everything’s for sale, even souls; someone get God on the phone.” They don’t relent on the following track, either. On “Get Busy,” ?uest lays down a thunderous boom-bap under Black Thought’s critique of political corruption, which gives way in subsequent verses to a toasting war between Dice Raw and Peedi Peedi.

That’s just how “Rising Down” begins. “Criminal” asks probing questions about police corruption. “I Will Not Apologize” situates this critical stance within Fela Kuti samples, which begs questions about whether Fela’s fascination with Black Power in the U.S. could have created a sustainable Afrobeat Illadelphia sound (had he lived just a few years longer). “I Can’t Help It” opens up a harsh evaluation of modern minstrelsy in hip-hop just before “Singing Man,” which levels a dual critique on minstrelsy and the perception of terror. The latter speaks from three distinct first-person perspectives: a Columbine/Virginia Tech-style school shooter, a child soldier (with compelling parallels to a young gang member), and a suicide bomber.

After one last lament on “Lost Desire” that compares gang-raised kids to child soldiers, Dunbar’s proverbial mask goes back on for “The Show.” Black Thought, Common, and Dice Raw exchange more rants on minstrels and society here, this time in a more resilient and hopeful tone. Dice Raw asserts, “I’m the Ernest Hemmingway of B-boy poems, they can never take the pen away I’m LeRoi Jones,” tipping his hat to one-time Roots collaborator Amiri Baraka. The Crew finishes the record with vocalist Chrisette Michele and D.C. rapper Wale on the appropriate bookend, “Rising Up,” which features some hypnotic go-go breaks in homage to the ill-fated D.C. style.

The Roots craft their Vollmann-inspired aural assessment of worldwide structural, symbolic and physical violence with such artistry that I hesitate to mention the less convincing tracks. Self-conscious segues aside, ?uestlove’s liner notes contextualize “@15″ and “75 Bars” so well that it’s worth quoting him on why they didn’t end up on the cutting room floor: “sometimes you get angry as f#$%, and you wind up venting on the very things you love.” Fair enough. The tightness of the rest of the record means he wouldn’t have had to explain why the pop-ish “Birthday Girl” got relegated to iTunes.

The Roots have historically been banished to the “alternative rap” category for daring to think critically in hip-hop. “Rising Down” embraces another self-exile from MTV and the pop charts in favor of artistic integrity. These self-proclaimed “gentlemen of an extraordinary league” have once again created something too intellectual for dance parties. For all of their “peoples who understand and truly recognize,” this will be a welcome addition to the annals of music and literature by modern black intelligentsia.

Following is a video clip featuring interviews with Root’s members about the making of the album:

YouTube Preview Image

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing

View review June 10th, 2008

Welcome to the June Issue

Welcome to the June “Black Music Month” issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re featuring several new books to add to your summer reading list, including the autobiography of Chicago house music pioneer Jesse Saunders, the story of Bob Marley’s Wailers, the 2nd revised and expanded edition of the award winning Rap Records discography by Freddy Fresh, and Marcus Reeves’ examination of “Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power.” Two fascinating documentaries are included: Stepping, which presents the history of Black Greek stepping culture; and Deep Roots Music, a six part program produced by the BBC in the 1980s that has been called “The Best Reggae Series Ever.” Wrapping up this issue is a review of the new Roots CD, as well as several historical CD compilations: Stax Does the Beatles (with some great soulful covers); Soulsville Sings Hitsville (Stax artists singing Motown hits); Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes and Rarities (a tribute to the famous singer-songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson); and the series Chris Barber Presents The Blues Legacy ‘Lost & Found.’

View review June 10th, 2008

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