My friend Jeff Chang says, “don’t despair, create” so here’s my contribution for this holiday week: a simple mix based around 15 of my favorite Sharon Jones and Dap-Kings’ songs.
1. Sharon Jones: Hook N Sling Meets The Funky Superfly
2. Sharon Jones: You Better Think Twice
These first two are from Jones’s early years at Desco, where she first met many of the key players who’d later become part of the Dap-Kings. Back then, most of those folks were in a Desco house band called the Soul Providers. Both can be found on the Desco anthology, Spike’s Choice.
3. SJDK: Cut the Line
My favorite song off their debut Daptone LP Dap-Dippin’ With…. Musically, the LP owes more to the Desco era but you can already hear the improved chops here.
4. SJDK: Keep On Looking (Kenny Dope Remix)
I think this was originally commissioned for Scion’s Daptone Remixed project. Original version appeared on 100 Days, 100 Nights, my favorite LP by the group.
5. SJDK: How Long Do I Have To Wait For Your Love?
6. SJDK: How Long Do I Have To Wait For Your Love? (Ticklah Remix)
Original appeared on the group’s second album, Naturally and the remix was also on that Daptone Remixed compilation.
7. SJDK: Let Them Knock
When I first heard this on 100 Days, 100 Nights it knocked me out; still does.
8. SJDK: Inspiration Information
Their cover of Shuggie Otis’s classic appears on the Dark Was the Night compilation from ’09.
9. The Dap-Kings: Summer of Sound
To this day, I don’t know when/where this instrumental was created and for what purpose. I just recall it popping up on my radar ~2008 and then for 2011’s Soul Time! anthology, the same track was slowed down and became the backing for “Longer & Stronger“.
10. SJDK: Better Things
My favorite song from 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way.
11. Greyboy Feat. Sharon Jones: Got To Be a Love (Paul Nice Remix)
Originally recorded for Greyboy’s 2004 Soul Mosaic LP, the Paul Nice remix was on the song’s 12″ release.
12. SJDK: Making Up and Breaking Up
Love the chorus on here; originally on Give the People What They Want from 2013.
13. SJDK: Ain’t Nobody
This came on a bonus 7″ sold alongside Give the People but doesn’t actually appear on the LP itself.
14. SJDK: Slow Down, Love
The group at their melancholy best.
15. SJDK: All Over Again
C’mon, like I was going to end this with a different song than this classic from Naturally? You know how I do.
My readers know how much I respected Sharon Jones and adored the music her and the Dap-Kings recorded. I can’t say her death last Friday was a shock – we all knew her cancer had come back and was very aggressive – but it felt unbearably cruel in a year where so many musicians we love have left us. NPR asked me to turnaround a quick essay about her and the group’s legacy and while I wrote it faster than I would have ideally liked to, I still hope I did them some justice in it.
I reviewed A Tribe Called Quest’s surprise last album this past week. I also had a few bonus thoughts about it:
First: “The Space Program” is ATCQ’s best lead song since “Steve Biko.”
Best ATCQ lead songs
2. Steve Biko
3. Push It Along
4. Space Program
5. Phony Rappers[1. ATCQ should have opened Beats, Rhymes and Life with “The Pressure” and closed it with either “Mind Power” or “The Hop.”
6. (ironically) Start It Up
Second: “The Donald” is ATCQ’s best closing song since “God Lives Through.”
Best ATCQ closing songs
1. God Lives Through
2. The Donald
3. Scenario [1. “Scenario” is obviously a classic but I always thought it was a weird song to stick at the end. “Vibes and Stuff” or “Jazz” might have been worked better.
4. Rock Rock Ya’ll
5. Stressed Out
6. Description of a Fool
Third: “Black Spasmodic” is the best “Phife rhymes first” song since “Baby Phife’s Return.”
Best “Phife rhymes first” songs
1. Buggin Out
2. Check the Rhime
4. Baby Phife’s Return
5. Black Spasmodic
6. Busta’s Lament
Michael Barnes, of The Melting Pot, has put together a great mix of soul music to soothe our pained souls or, as he puts it, “something to help with your election hangover and help you keep your head up and pushing forward.”
I’ll try not to repeat the same lede as the review but it does bear repeating: it’s crazy that it took until now for someone to write a definitive Mayfield biography. There was Peter Burns’ Curtis Mayfield that come out of the UK in the early ‘00s but while it was a fantastic discographic resources, it offered little on Mayfield’s actual life. Traveling Soul is hardly perfect (see Part 2 below) but it goes far further than any previous book in trying to give us a sense of Mayfield as both artist and man. Whatever its other flaws, that’s a Very Big Deal.
And hey: the book convinced me to revisit a catalog that I thought I knew decently well and then I realized how little I actually knew. Here then is a highly personalized playlist. It’s not meant to be a primer by any means but rather, captures how I moved back through Mayfield and The Impressions’ music in the weeks and months I spent reading and thinking about the biography.
On the one hand, the group you create with a bunch of doo-wop loosies from across Chi-town manages to land a huge hit right out the gate: “For Your Precious Love” (1958). But then that insta-success catalyzes the relatively quick departure of lead Jerry Butler and now you look to your guitarist and main songwriter, Curtis Mayfield, who’s all of 16. It could easily have all gone south for Curtis, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. Chicago probably had hundreds, if not thousands, of failed soul groups from that same era and as talented as The Impressions were, there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t have ended up in that same pile of forgotten coulda-beens.
But then Curtis churns out “Gypsy Woman,” an unlikely hit the opens with the clickity-clack rhythm of castanets and takes the listener on an quasi-exotic trip. Now The Impressions had their proverbial foot in the door.
As The Impressions were trying to build momentum, Mayfield was fast becoming a key architect in what would become known as The Chicago Sound, partially because he was doing work for artists at many different area labels, especially Vee-Jay (where The Impressions were originally signed) and OKeh, where Curtis was hired on as a songwriter in late 1962. The way Traveling Soul tells it, Curtis has literal bags of songs he was writing and he allowed different artists to dip into that bag, including Gene Chandler, Major Lance and Billy Butler. (Many of these recordings are compiled on the Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul anthology).
Listening back now, especially on these two songs, the Mayfield influence is incredibly obvious in terms of the style of the song, how the vocals fit together, etc. Gooden and Cash even sang backup on many of these songs; all that was really missing was Curtis’s voice and even as he became a hit machine for other artists, he and the Impressions were fast moving towards their signature sound.
Let me start by saying this is one of my all-time favorite things The Impressions ever touched. It’s so simple and unadorned, allowing the trio’s vocal prowess to take center stage. As Traveling Soul points out, the kind of three-man vocal weave that the group practiced was completely commonplace in gospel singing but as with many innovations in R&B/soul, bringing gospel techniques into secular music was an innovation in itself. “I’ve Been Trying” powerfully gives Mayfield, Gooden and Cash their own turns on lead but the real sublime magic happens around the 2:00 mark where the three stack falsettos atop one another and the effect is of such ineffable beauty that I feel like I’m besmirching it by saying anything more besides: listen, rewind, listen, repeat.
“I’m So Proud” also showcases the group’s budding vocal style but I focus on this song for a different reason. Before I read Traveling Soul, I never paid that close attention to the lyrics but now the verse immediately after the main hook is like a thorn hidden along a rose stem. The group, gorgeously, sings of “I’m so proud of being loved by you,” and then it switches to Curtis – solo – singing “and it would hurt, hurt to know, if you ever were untrue.”
Let’s just pause on that for a moment…nowhere else in the song except here does he give any indication that his lover is out there creeping. Indeed, the entirety of the song is all about the profound, soul-fulfilling love they share but then Curtis undermines that entire vibe with one line. As I suggest in my review, it’s like he couldn’t help himself; his insecurities in real life ran so deep to emerge even in the most innocuous of love paeans. Dude had issues.
…and this just happens to be my favorite of their uptempo tracks. It’s crazy to me that some white radio programmers found this too inflammatory to play but it’s a reminder of the politics of the time that proclaiming “we’re a winner” was deemed a threat to the status quo.
If you could only buy one album that Mayfield worked on…cheat and buy both The Impressions’ This Is My Country and Young Mods’ Forgotten Story. As far as I’m concerned, this was a double album that just happened to be split into two (and indeed, there’s a CD reissue that packages them together). They were the first two albums recorded for Mayfield’s new Curtom label and they feature the same key personnel. Besides The Impressions, there was longtime arranger/producer Johnny Pate plus newcomer Donny Hathaway, who was briefly recruited by Mayfield out of college and stayed around until 1969 when Hathaway struck out on his own (this lead his vindictive mentor to cut off all ties with him). The production, songwriting, everything on these two albums are exquisite and while I don’t want to overvalue Hathaway’s contribution in such a way that diminishes anyone else’s, I have to think that part of what makes these albums so striking is because he added something extra on the production/arrangement side (though it appears his influence was more felt on the Young Mods’ recordings vs. This Is My Country, where Pate was still working out most of the charts.
In any case, “I’m Loving Nothing” is one of the most devastating ballads I’ve ever heard, a 2.5 minute eulogy to a love affair that apparently has gone very wrong (maybe the lover from “I’m So Proud” finally went untrue). “Seven Years” is also about the end of a relationship but it sounds so damn…happy that I forgot that it’s supposed to be a heartbreak song (I’m sure a musicologist out there can explain whether I’m right or wrong about my assessment of the song’s emotional affect). It also features another one of those mind-melting multi-harmony moments – scroll up to 1:55 where the three get their “whoo-whoos” on and it’s the best thing ever. I’m getting chills simply thinking about it.
I could have included half the songs on these two albums – that’s how much I love them – and I’ve already done a dissection of “My Deceiving Heart,” which appeared on Young Mods’.
When I read the other Mayfield bio – which isn’t that great from a biographical point of view but is incredibly good as a discographic reference – I learned that Hathaway and Pate and the Impressions worked on a series of recordings for a third album in that same era: The Best Impressions. You’d be totally forgiven if you assumed this was nothing more than a “greatest hits” LP since the entire b-side are just songs culled from This Is My Country and Young Mods’. But the A-side songs are not taken from their ABC-Paramount catalog; they’re re-recordings of some of the group’s biggest hits. According to Traveling Soul, Curtis wanted to create these new versions so “whenever anyone wanted to license them, they would license his masters [vs. the masters owned by ABC-Paramount], and all the money would go to Curtom.”
It’s an interesting logic though, if I understand how these things work…Curtis was gambling on the idea that someone wanting to license, say “Gypsy Woman,” would rather go with this new version vs. the original and generally, I feel like people would rather license the original because that’s the song they know. Regardless, I picked up this LP because I was curious to hear what the group would do with their classics by adding a few years and some new players (including Hathaway). For the most part, the differences are subtle on most of the songs – “I’ve Been Trying” has more instrumentation hanging on its bones (not an improvement in my opinion) but “I’m So Proud” makes Curtis’s vocals seem even more intimate – but I included “Gypsy Woman” here because it’s the most transformed of the bunch. Now the songs open with a dramatic horn chorus and the new take feels more cinematic in build and scope. The castanets are still there but the arrangement is far fuller and the layers of sound run several layers deeper. Rather than a mere re-recording, this is the one song from the 1969 sessions that sounds most re-imagined.
I’d be remiss in not pointing out that Curtom had its own stable of artists besides The Impressions and Mayfield. The Five Stairsteps were a family R&B group that Mayfield had discovered early on, signing them to his old Windy C subsidiary before bringing them over to Curtom for a few years (and before the group departed to go over to bigger success with Buddah). “Don’t Change Your Love” is perhaps best remembered today for the opening drum break that dozens would go onto loop (I feel like every west coast hip-hop artist in the early ‘90s used it at least once) but it also bears Mayfield’s obvious touch, especially on the vocal arrangements. According to Traveling Soul, because the Stairsteps were signed to Curtom, it lead the label to pass on another family soul group who had briefly auditioned for them: The Jackson 5. Oops.
10. Curtis Mayfield: Give It Up (1970) (Available on Curtis)
To be sure, there’s far more consequential songs off of Curtis’s magnificent, self-titled solo debut LP. “We People, Who Are Darker Than Blue” is an incredible accomplishment both musically and thematically and if you’ve never heard the entire, full version of “Move On Up,” it’s worth sitting through it a few dozen times so you can marvel at everything Curtis layered into it. But I choose “Give It Up” here because, like “Seven Years,” it sounds like a “happy song that’s actually sad.” And once again, it’s about the complete disintegration of a relationship…in rather specific detail. Todd Mayfield muses in Traveling Soul that the song was really about the end of the marriage between Curtis and his mother, Diane, and that makes total sense in the context here. Notably, Todd points out that the song ends the album, almost like an emotional counterpoint to the intense energy of “Move On Up.”
11. Curtis Mayfield: The Makings of You (1971) (Available on Curtis Live!)
I generally prefer studio originals to live versions given the complexities of trying to capture good sound in a live setting but in this case, “The Makings of You” on Curtis’s double-LP live album from ’71 is far and away my preferred version. The sheer intimacy of the song, the way Curtis’s guitar is foregrounded, the subtle impact of the congas in the background, the noise of the crowd…every element here works in perfect concert with the other.
12. Curtis Mayfield: Think (1972) (Available on Super Fly)
When Curtis was working on the Super Fly soundtrack, he brought in Johnny Pate again. However, Pate felt on the album’s two instrumentals, including “Think,” his contributions were so extensive that he deserved a co-writing credit. Mayfield disagreed and refused to grant one. Pate – whose talents had graced Mayfield recordings since the early 1960s – never worked with Curtis again.
There’s No Place Like America Today is arguably the last great ‘70s album that Mayfield put out though perhaps I’m biased because this album has “So In Love” on it and that song, alone, would elevate practically any LP. Especially with all those other heartbreak songs I’ve highlighted earlier, “So In Love” feels almost like an exception: an unqualified, earnest love song of the most sensuous order.
Like so many of his peers from the ‘60s, the latter half of the ‘70s were…unkind to them. Disco messed up many a soul giant’s game by forcing them into recoding in a genre that they clearly had little feel for and Curtis was no exception. His career continued its fade into the 1980s as the traditional sound of soul became further minimized in the rising sounds of boogie, electro and eventually hip-hop. It’s hard to find much from Curtis’s catalog in this era worth noting but then I stumbled on “Baby It’s You,” which ranks amongst the best of his quiet storm output from the era. The production has that ‘80s sheen but like Curtis’s best ballads, everything is stripped down, letting his falsetto do much of the work. The song also boasts a great vocal hook despite those ‘80s horns (or maybe because of them?)
Part 2: On Traveling Soul
My Pitchfork review was mostly an excuse to critically revisit Mayfield and his legacy and as such, I had to leave out more thoughts on Traveling Soul as a book/biography. As noted above, I enjoyed large parts of it but there’s a couple of things I’d nitpick over:
Much of the book doubles as a social history of America of the 1950s through ’70s and while that backdrop is, of course, central to understanding the role that Mayfield and the Impressions played, I feel like the book couldn’t find a way to more deftly integrate those parallel histories together. At times, the social history seemed to over-dominate the biographical details, and at other times, it felt like the authors were pushing the connection too much. Overall, I thought Craig Werner’s Higher Ground did a better job with the same idea even if Werner doesn’t have the depth of personal history in his text.
I wanted to know more about the songwriting and production process. That aforementioned Peter Burns biography is, at least, more detailed in this regards (even though it comes up very short on the personal history) and while Traveling Soul hardly skimps on the music-making side, I feel like there were significant patches missing in that regard.
By 1996, Hobo Junction was dirt hustlin’ their music on Bay Area street corners, part of the broader move towards independence that so many Bay artists were at the forefront of. At its heart, dirt hustlin’ was a profound rejection of the standard hip-hop narrative where groups just try to get signed and roll the dice from there. Hobo Junction had that moment already, back when Southpaw put out “Shot Callin’ and Big Ballin’” but now they joined alongside members of Hiero, Mystik Journeymen/Living Legends and you’d have to also think, in a broader sense, E-40, Master P and Too $hort, all of whom got their start selling tapes out of car trunks.
If I recall, this cassette EP was notable because it had a striking Hobo family cut, “Township,” plus one of the first new Saafir songs, “In A Vest,” anyone had heard in a while. Best line ever: “if you aim for my head and you miss then you dead.”
As for the Shigger Fragger Show…whoooo. This was a creation of DJ Billy Jam, inarguably, one of the Bay Area’s most important DJ/radio figures even if he doesn’t always get that credit. He was a massive fan of the nascent turntablism movement and the Shigger Fragger Shows reflected the creative madness and zaniness that so many of those DJs embodied. This was episode one and therefore, before they started videotaping the sessions (which took things to a whole other level of nutty) but the main point was that the SFS were always an open invitation to improvise and innovate.
One of the cooler items I came across in whilst #digginginthetapes is a demo tape I received from Ill Brothers circa 1994.
This was a Southern California crew, lead by Ill Bro Chat and Snizake. They hit my radar in ’94 with “Mescaline” and it’s possible that they sent me both the single and demo at the same time. The demo tape does feature one song that made the vinyl 12″ – “Valley of Broken Necks” but as far as I know, everything else on the tape only exists in that format.
My favorite song off here is a song that wasn’t titled on the cassette sleeve so I just call it “Quickly Disposed Of” (based on the scratched hook).
(From what I gather, the demo also includes a different demo on the B-side for Of Mexican Descent (OMD). It’s not credited as such but it would make sense since those two crews were friendly.)
Ill Brothers had two other official 12″s after “Mescaline,” including “Funkbreak,” a killer b-side off their “Olestra” single.
I also found another demo/single tape by an Orange County duo called Origin. I found next to nothing about these guys besides a single they put out in 1996 that features one of the songs off this 3-song EP (“Last Compound”). Other than that, a complete mystery!
The #digginginthetapes adventures continue. Since I already have Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 up, why not Vol. 2 too? Of the three, I spent the least effort on pitching this one around so even people who’ve heard my 1 or 2 probably haven’t heard this before.
On the other side of the tape, I created an early attempt at a “semi-obscure hip-hop b-sides and remixes” mix that, a few years later, would take fuller form as Incognitos Vol 1. (four songs are included on both).
I recently picked up one of these USB cassette players because I wanted a cheap solution to digitizing my old tapes (let’s just say this thing is cheap in all senses of the term). One of the first things I digitized with it was my third mixtape, made back in *gulp* 1995.1 This was perhaps my most “experimental” mixtape insofar as many of the songs were dubbed onto here from tape advances and demos and I also included some parts from the infamous KMEL Hiero vs. Hobo battle plus opened with a freestyle the Roots delivered on my old KALX radio show in 1994 (previously shared here).
For real, it doesn’t feel like I made it 21 years ago. F___, I’m old. ↩