Johnny Popcorn – Totem Pole

Title: Totem Pole

Artist: Johnny Popcorn

Label: Mad Dragon Music Group/dist. Bandcamp

Formats: CD, Digital (MP3, FLAC)

Release date: September 30, 2016


Johnny Popcorn? Yes that is the name of this group and I love it. Hailing from Philadelphia, the five member band features vocals from Hezekiah (Davis) and Jani Coral, with Lloyd Alexander on guitar, Freshie on bass, and Clayton Crothers on drums. They’ve opened for a who’s who in the neo soul/progressive soul scene: Kindred, Oddisee, Robert Glasper, Ledisi, RJD2, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Bilal. JP’s ten track sophomore album, Totem Pole, is rock—yes, rock! Now before some of you start frowning your face, it’s not hard rock. It’s not Bad Brains, and there are no Vernon Reid guitar solo riffs. However, Totem Pole offers a welcome fusion of sound and if you free your mind, you may enjoy it.

“Go Go Go” is perhaps the most up tempo of all the tracks. It opens with, believe it or not, acoustic guitar that recalls George Michael’s “Faith.” The catchy chorus has Hezekiah and the group chanting and clapping, “go, go, go – you got to get up and go, go, go” as they encourage folks to chase their dreams.

Coming Home” is another good track thanks to drummer Chuck Treece, who is a local legend in Philly. Hezekiah is once again featured on vocals, and listening to this track you might think Lenny Kravitz could have recorded it. “What a Day” is a step out of rock and into funk. The opening bass is a sure fire winner and will get heads nodding up and down.

Johnny Popcorn’s Totem Pole is certainly different. Where so many acts want to copycat each other, this band stands out! The only question remains, will they or can they find an audience? Judging by who JP has collaborated with, I’d say yes. Totem Pole is a promising follow-up to their debut album, The Crow, and I’m already waiting to see what direction they will pull the audience on their next release.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

Total Soul Classics: Teddy Pendergrass

In August of 2007, Philadelphia International Records licensed its entire catalog to SONY BMG, and reissues have been gradually appearing on the Legacy label.  The most recent collaboration is the Total Soul classics series, which so far has resulted in newly remastered reissues of six classic Gamble & Huff albums that include new (albeit brief) liner notes and an occasional bonus track. The three reissues covered in this review focus on the contributions of Teddy Pendergrass, who captured the essence of Philly soul (other reissues in the series include 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, and Leon Huff’s Here To Create Music).

The Philadelphia sound, also known as the “Philly sound,” is a style of soul music featuring the elements of funk, strings, horns and lush orchestral arrangements. Pop vocals and R&B rhythm sections fused to create this new sound/genre, and laid the background for disco and the format known on smooth jazz radio stations as the “Quiet Storm.”  The Philly Sound, or Philly Soul, was pioneered by the producing and songwriting duo of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble. They formed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1971 and worked with many artists including Patti Labelle, Archie Bell and the Drells, the O’Jays, the Jacksons, Lou Rawls, the Stylistics, Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass, amongst many others. Gamble & Huff routinely used the same group of studio musicians, known as MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers), which produced a consistent hit-making sound. Since 1963, Gamble & Huff have earned 175 gold and platinum records, dominating the pop and R&B charts for over twenty years. They’ve written over 3000 songs that were nurtured from the church pulpits and streets, tackling topics like family, poverty, politics and relationships.

Title: Wake Up Everybody
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-340102
Release date:  2008 (1975)

One of the most recognizable male vocalists to come out of PIR was Teddy Pendergrass. Like high premium chocolate, Teddy Pendergrass has a voice that is smooth, rich and velvety. Pendergrass’s vocals promote sexiness, sultriness and sensuality, and he convincingly belts out with the prowess necessary to render social change, equality and global consciousness. Affectionately known as the “Teddy Bear,” Pendergrass has been famously known to cater to women by holding “women only” concerts and handing out roses, teddy bears and hugs and kisses.

Originally hired as the Cadillac’s drummer, Pendergrass began singing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes when the two groups merged. Many hits were made through this collaboration, yet it is the title track from the album Wake Up Everybody that arguably stands out as one of the best soul/R&B songs of the seventies. What makes this song so vital and beautiful is the lush orchestration, well-executed production, and perfect harmonies. The lyrics offer a cry to the world to literally wake up and see what is going on (similar to Marvin Gaye’s plea) and take accountability. There is no excuse or reason for society to allow poverty, crime, illness and the many plagues that affect us all if we choose to stay in a dormant state. According to his biography, Pendergrass is an ordained minister. His vocal approach is very similar to the calls and wails of black preaching- commanding yet convincing. With a wonderful balance of gruff pleas and smooth vocals, Pendergrass demonstrates his gift to blend both styles effortlessly. The ability to show vulnerability with a masculine commanding voice is not easy to achieve and Pendergrass is one of the masters.

The remaining tracks on Wake Up Everybody are primarily love songs with the stand out cut, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” This 1975 release was Pendergrass’s final album with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Only one bonus track has been added, an extended Tom Moulton mix of  “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

Title: Teddy Pendergrass
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29484 2
Release date: 2008 (1977)

Pendergrass’s first solo album, self-titled Teddy Pendergrass, was originally released in 1977 and was also produced by the dynamic team of Gamble & Huff. Two singles charted from this album, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me.” The track “Somebody Told Me” recalls the vocal styles of gospel, while “If I Had” evokes the best of the blues. These songs in particular showcase Pendergrass’s ability to pull from both the secular and the sacred to create emotive soul-stirring music whose appeal is most obvious to women, yet also addresses feelings that both men and women have experienced. A very consistent album with no dull tracks, Gamble & Huff concentrated on Pendergrass’s vocals, using female backing vocals or Pendergrass’s own voice to truly showcase his lead vocals. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get, The More I Want” offer soulful disco tracks ideal for dancing, while also incorporating a great rhythm section, pounding percussion, and beautiful orchestrations.

Title: Life Is a Song Worth Singing
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29485 2
Release date: 2008 (1978)

Life is a Song Worth Singing was Pendergrass’s second solo album, again produced by Gamble & Huff.  Pendergrass sings with raw conviction, yet offers tenderness in tracks such as “When Somebody Loves You Back.” The title track is a well-arranged mix of horns and strings that could provide any action movie from 1978 with a formidable soundtrack. The fervor of this CD is more intense than Pendergrass’s first album. He confidently makes it clear what he wants and what he likes as in the track “Only You,” while songs like the top charting “Close the Door” build from slow seduction to intense passion, displaying his vulnerability. This album solidified Pendergrass’s position as one of the sexiest, most sensual balladeers in R&B music.  The two bonus tracks include the single version of “Only You” and an extended disco version (7:09) of “Get Down, Get Funky.”

Though primarily known for his love songs, Pendergrass is much more than a balladeer. His body of work crosses many genres, such as disco, funk, soul and R&B. He sings from a spiritual fervor, bringing soul to every song. Whether Pendergrass is lamenting his woes of love gone wrong, the joys of loving someone when someone loves you back, or calling out to the world to show compassion towards our fellow brothers and sisters, it is very clear he has made an indelible mark on music that will never be duplicated.

Posted by June Evans

Holy Hip Hop 101

Holy hip hop (also known as Christian rap or Gospel rap) is a type of music resulting from artists using the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop but including overt lyrics professing their Christian faith. The genre developed mainly within the larger framework of Gospel music in the 1980s as artists such as Stephen Wiley, dc Talk, and S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ) began writing rap music with Christian lyrics. These early Christian rap albums were released by Gospel music labels such as ForeFront Records (now a part of EMI Christian Music Group).

In the 1990s, the genre spread as artists such as The Cross Movement and the Gospel Gangstaz expanded the audience. The Cross Movement, based out of Philadelphia, understands their Christian rap music to be yet another subgenre of the larger hip hop culture. The Gospel Gangstaz, comprised of ex-gang members, represent a number of holy hip hop artists who retain their cultural style, preference, and aesthetics for music making after a marked point of conversion in their spiritual lives. For example, artists such as Bushwick Bill (Geto Boys) and Christopher “Play” Martin (Kid ‘N Play) have transitioned from other subgenres of hip hop to Christian rap in recent years.

Currently, almost all of the major record labels for Christian music release albums that could be considered holy hip hop, but only a few specialize in this genre exclusively. The largest of these is the result of The Cross Movement establishing their own Christian rap label: Cross Movement Records. A number of African American and white American male artists make up the performers of this genre while there are very few female artists in this market. As with most subgenres of Christian popular music, there are many mixed reactions to this style of music from both the church and larger society. Finally, an important aspect of this genre is that a number of internet forums such as,, and (the holy hip hop data-base), and individual artists’ MySpace pages serve as networks for fans.

The four Holy Hip Hop releases reviewed in this issue represent the products of three independent record labels specializing in HHH from two geographical regions: two from Philadelphia (Cross Movement Records and Lamp Mode Recordings) and one from Dallas (Reach Records). These four albums offer only a small sampling of HHH but shed light on some salient issues and stylistic features of the genre. While the production techniques of HHH appear to have caught up with mainstream abilities, albums in this genre vary in style between albums and from track to track in many individual albums. The lyrical content is expressly Biblically-centered, offering countless vernacular metaphors, specific citations, and general thematic material related to the Christian faith. Within this overt Christian apology, artists’ personal faith tradition and perspectives come to the fore. These HHH artists interact with both the church and their “secular” counterparts by offering general (and sometimes harsh) critiques of actions viewed as ungodly with their favorite target being materialism. Overall, these four albums are well-produced and lyrically interesting examples of a continually emerging musical genre that interacts with both the secular and ecclesial world.

Posted by Mike Lee

The Atonement

Title: The Atonement
Artist: shai linne
Label: Lamp Mode Recordings
Format: available for download
Date: 2008

Born and raised in Philadelphia, shai linne has a background in theater and the arts. Influenced by Run-DMC and Grand Master Flash, he was fully immersed in hip-hop culture from a young age. The Atonement is shai linne’s first solo album release and is produced by Lamp Mode Recordings, a small, independent Philadelphia record label which represents HHH artists linne, timothy brindle, Stephen the Levite, Evangel, deejay essence, and Hazakim.

The production of shai linne’s album is not as varied or “clean” as the other Holy Hip Hop albums reviewed in this issue. The Atonement is based more on the use of samples and incorporates the noise from record grooves. These facts, in combination with shai linne’s poetic (almost spoken word) rapping style, suggests an aesthetic choice to create more of an “underground” and less of a “pop” or “dance” vibe to the CD. Therefore, this does not appear to signal any regional differences since Cross Movement Records (CMR) is also based in Philadelphia, yet its releases are similar in style to those of Dallas based Reach Records (RR). Rather, these traits-the use of cleaner production, varied musical styles between tracks, and a general mirroring of mainstream hip-hop albums-suggest that the CMR and RR are well-established and financially sound record labels that are reaching large audiences.

In terms of musical style, shai linne’s vocals are more understated, laid back, and consistent when compared to FLAME and Sho Baraka, whose voices are more chameleon-like, varying from track to track and moving in and out of various styles. Each of these artists is deeply personal in his lyrical observations and reflections on personal stories, struggles, and identities while critiquing the problems of the world, non-Christian behaviors, and the church, itself. shai linne boasts about Christianity while simultaneously suggesting the meaninglessness of secular rap lyrics. In “Jesus is Alive” he raps, “Looking for the body of Jesus you won’t find it / we never lack spirit / letting you cats hear it / ‘cause his tomb is empty like most secular rap lyrics.” As with FLAME, shai linne’s perspective is similarly inspired by Calvinist theology as he references the concepts of total depravity (from “In Adam All Die”) and election (from “Jesus is Alive”).

Finally, it is worth noting the common practice of collaboration on tracks from the four Holy Hip Hop albums reviewed in this issue. In fact, shai linne appears as a guest artist on FLAME’s album while the popular Christian rap artists Trip Lee and Lecrae, among others, both appear on FLAME and Sho Baraka’s albums. Similarly, each album includes audio samples of male preachers delivering sermons. This integration further showcases each artist’s personal relationship to the ecclesial world.

Posted by Mike Lee