This month sees the DVD release of a film celebrating the enduring legacy of Memphis soul music, Take Me to the River. This music documentary aims to address all things Memphis soul, mostly focusing on the Stax operation. Narrator Terrence Howard tells the story of the city’s musical past and continuing legacy, interspersed with clips of musicians interacting in the studio as well as musical performances (including Howard himself singing and playing guitar on one song). While the film’s narrative gets lost at times, this is largely mitigated by the wonderful performances on this record, combining a number of musical legends (several of who have passed away since this film was shot) with musicians of various successive generations. This often results in interesting fusions, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Yo Gotti performing a rendition of “Ain’t no Sunshine” together, complete with an original rap verse by the latter. Other high profile guest artists include William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, and North Mississippi Allstars, who make up the backing band on several cuts. The film also highlights the legacy of Memphis soul by addressing the role of music education in the city and the work of the Soulsville Foundation, including high school youth being mentored by Stax legends. This movie focuses on an important slice of Memphis’s musical culture and Take Me to the River includes some wonderful performances that celebrate the city’s vibrant history of soul music.
Pasadena, California-based musician and producer Dâm-Funk returns with the announcement of his newest solo project Invite the Light, to be released September 4th on Stones Throw Records. There is no doubt that Dâm-Funk is a powerful asset to the label. His production perfectly fits within the label’s current stable of artists while at the same time extending the broad musical diversity of Stones Throw’s offerings. It is possible to hear the manipulation of textures and beats which Stones Throw artists tend to be fond of on the track “Acting”, which features the cosmic vocals of pop surrealist Ariel Pink. By interspersing old school beats with futuristic sounds, atmospheres, melodies, and harmonies on cuts like “She Lights Me Up,” Dâm-Funk channels many of the artists who have influenced his approach to production.
After numerous collaborations, Invite the Light is Dâm-Funk’s first solo album in nearly 6 years. The influence of the collaborative processes in which Dâm-Funk has participated during the past several years is apparent through the impressive diversity he offers as the album’s guiding concept: “the awareness of funk.” So, it’s not surprising that funk-master Junie Morrison (perhaps best known from his work with the Ohio Players or his participation with the P-Funk collective in the late 1970s) opens the album with an intriguing introduction on “The Secrets of Funk,” heralding this album as “The spearhead of the revolution and the nearly forgotten school of groove formerly known to us as the funk” which “will cause an evolutionary leap in consciousness and in the message of the funk itself.” And Dâm-Funk definitely knows how to deal with the P-Funk legacy, as is keenly illustrated by “HowUGetFu*kAround”, what may be heard as the descendent of “Flashlight,” a kind of proto-g-funky-hip-hop. This style has been Dâm-Funk’s bread and butter since Adolescent Funk, the series of demos and home recordings he made between 1988 and 1992. Following George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” “The Acceptance” uses a recording trick similar to the one Clinton employed that “intended for the bass and the handclaps to be abnormally loud” in order to produce the danceable beat that drives both tracks.
To further explore the techniques that Dâm-Funk uses when constructing his beats, one may simply look at the “phat bassline” on “Just Ease Your Mind”, which meshes perfectly with the signature flow of Snoop Dogg, with whom Dâm-Funk previously collaborated on 2013’s 7 Days of Funk. Other tracks are notable not only for their all-star cast of featured artists but also for how they demonstrate Dâm-Funk’s adroit beatmaking skills, as with two versions of “I’m Just Tryna’ Survive,” offering a “party version” as well as the original, with both sporting distinctly different raps by Q-Tip. This type of juxtaposition also occurs again with the modern/retro track “Floating on Air” featuring the surprising duo of Flea and Computer Jay.
In short, Invite the Light represents a convergence of many different sounds and textures, creating a pleasant and even astonishing whole when considered as a full package. What binds all of these disparate influences together? Funk, of course. So, as Clinton would say, sit back, relax and “give up the Funk!”
On March 3rd 2009, Joseph Saddler (a.k.a. Grandmaster Flash) excited scholars, students, and lovers of hip-hop across the globe by coming out of hibernation with his first studio album in 20 years. Entitled The Bridge: Concept of a Culture, the CD is an interesting, yet predictable, album featuring the likes of Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip, Princess Superstar and DJ Kool. It also features a few rappers from across the ponds, giving it an international feel and melding together worldwide appreciation of a good beat. One of the most important pioneers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five were the first rap/hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and Flash had a biography written for him by David Ritz in 2008 entitled The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats
Born January 1, 1958 in Bridgetown, Barbados, Flash was the first person to mix two records without losing the beat, introduce the infamous record scratch, and create an album consisting entirely of samples. With a musical family, including a father who owned countless records to peruse, Flash’s skills began culminating at an early age and his later contributions to the genre have earned him an exquisite reputation.
Though his last album, On the Strength (1988), was commercially unsuccessful, he remains renowned and respected for his well-known track, “The Message” (from his debut album) and other work with the Furious Five. It’s not surprising then that rappers of super-star status were pleased to bestow their talent on the new record. But despite the names, the old-school-esque beats, and the countless props to the world of hip-hop, this album was a bit of a disappointment. The Bridge attempts to fuse old-school with the past 10 years of digitalism and the emergence of electronic sounding rap, but oftentimes comes off predictable and shallow. He keeps it clean (even Snoop stays away from mentioning the ganj), but it gets tiresome to hear about the surface-level pursuit of women track after track. In fact, with the exception of the international tribute, ‘We Speak Hip-Hop’, the album is politically irrelevant and makes almost no social statements. Furthermore, despite being a symbol of sample profundity, Flash’s new album contains not a single one.
Yes, the album is somewhat generic, but it is full of head bopping and catchy tunes like the opening song “Shine All Day,” which features the cool and relaxed raps of Q-Tip, as well as lesser known Jumz and Kel Spencer. The recurring trill of an electronic flute provides a hook while an auto-tuned voice supplies chorus response.
The next track on the album proved to be the best one. Featuring Sweden’s Afasi, Spain’s Kase-O, Japan’s Macchio, Senegal’s Abass, and our own KRS-One, “We Speak Hip-Hop” reminds us that the genre Flash helped to create is now a worldwide phenomenon. “Stand by my culture proud, singing the praises loud-we speak hip-hop.” Sadly, the CD doesn’t come with a translation of the lyrics (a mix between their native tongues, slang, and even a few detectable English words), but the point comes through clearly. Horns introduce the song, and when the beat comes in, it speaks a language everyone can understand.
The rest of the songs on The Bridge are weaker, filled with annoyingly persistent electronic blips (“Bounce Back” especially). When the beat comes in on “Swagger,” it shows promise, but Lynn Carter’s chorus is just plain boring and awkward, not to mention that ‘swagger’ has been over-done thanks to M.I.A. and Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne, and Kanye. The tracks move quickly nonetheless, and “Tribute to the Breakdancer” feels a bit more real as Flash “name-drops” some crews and brings in a jumpy nostalgia for a time in which he was definitely the main man. “Grown and Sexy” and “When I Get There” both follow with the same chorus and subject structure, dropping such pure lyrical genius as Hedonis da Amazon’s verse “When good girls love a guy, good girls sin.” And apparently drop the towel off their naked body. Twice.
Yet, despite my negative opinion of some of the songs, Grandmaster Flash’s indelible status as a musical icon precedes me and I want to give him the respect he deserves. Though Flash has now transitioned to the digital domain, he is still responsible for the natural beats of old school hip-hop and is one of the primary reasons the genre is taken seriously as an art form today.
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.