The spring is shaping up to be a good one for Truth and Soul with the next Lee Fields & the Expressions album on its way but their winter was solid too (and apologies for not getting this out sooner). Their reissue dept. has been busy with a trio of fantastic releases, starting with…
Qunestine Strong: One Hundred Years From Now
From 7″ (Truth and Soul, 2013)
Apart from having one of the more unique names I’ve ever seen, this is one of the few soul singles I can think of out of Phoenix, recorded (I think?) back in 1973. According to the website’s liners, producer Lawrence Carroll had to figure out how to record 16 instruments on a basic 8-track. What you get is this balance between a slightly lo-fi recording and an impressively dense arrangement, all of which creates the sound bed that the aptly named Strong comes in over on and crushes with her vocals. Speaking of lo-fi though:
Beau Williams: I’ll Be Home Soon
From 7″ (Truth and Soul, 2013)
This is fantastic 7″…two unreleased demo tracks recovered from the vaults of Whit Records in 2011. It certainly still sounds like a demo but to me, that’s part of the charm: it’s so damn raw. It also doesn’t hurt that even the demo mix puts the drums up front and center. Both sides are aces. But as good as these two releases are, the release gem is…
Shirely Nanette: Give and Take + Tropic of Love
From Never Coming Back (Satara, 1973)
I wrote about this album nearly two years ago and raved about how it had become an instant favorite. I think it’s fantastic that it’s been reissued so that others can enjoy it. I do wish the liners were a bit more extensive on the reissue; I really want to know more about the recording, especially since Nanette is still around. But that aside, you should get this – such a wondrously diverse album in style and sound. I’m sharing “Give and Take” again as that’s my favorite and this time, I’m including “Tropic of Love” which I didn’t include before.
The Center Stage: Everyday’s a Fantasy
From 7 “(RCA, 1971)
“Crossover” is fairly ill-defined (which is saying a lot since most music genres are ill-defined). I find that it’s one of those cases where “you know it when you hear it” and if you had to come up with a gold standard for what crossover sounds like, you could do worse than Eddie Kendricks or the Sylvers II album but you could just as easily have mentioned Donny Hathaway too. He was as much an architect of that ’70s sound as anyone else and besides his own solo work and partnership with Roberta Flack, he also tried to put together a few groups on his own, include The Center Stage who practically slay me with this Hathaway-arranged cut, “Everday’s a Fantasy.” So good, so good, so good. It’s on a promo-only RCA 7″ but it flies far enough below people’s radar as to be fairly easily to cop if you’re patient.
1619 B.A.B.: World
From 7″ (Brown Door, 1973)
I have no illusions that I will ever own the 1619 Bad Ass Bad LP (either version). A man can still dream, of course, but in the meantime, I shall content myself with the very easily attainable 7″ from the group, which features an absolute gem from them: “World.” Again, I could try to explain it but it’s just “that ’70s sound” that’s perfect here.
As I learned from Michael Gonzales, March 8 is the 20th anniv. of Gang Starr’s third album, Hard to Earn. (Obligatory “20 years already?” lament)
I always felt I was in a minority of fans for whom Hard to Earn is our favorite GS album. It always seemed perpetually stuck outside the top 3 (though still regarded higher than their first and last LPs) and I still don’t understand why it’s not considered their best. At the very least, I think it’s one of DJ Premier’s best sonically realized efforts. It’s not just that his sampling game was ace (flipping Vic Juris? Props but the whole feel was so goddamn hard and aggressive, a runaway subway car of an album, smashing into concrete. Even that opening skit, with Guru trying to put younger cats up on proper game behavior, is dark and unsettling, its background loop pulsing like a nightmarish EKG. And from there, it goes into the ridiculously fonky soundclash of “ALONGWAYTOGO.” The whole album is seeped in dissonance and disquiet, with sinister whines borrowed from ’70s soundtracks and one beat (“Brainstorm”) that sounds like an alien invasion force being repelled by a crew of East NY roughnecks.
I could go on (and I will!): for “F.A.L.A.” Primo decided that Big Shug, of all people, should be backed by the trinkle-tinkle of a piano (and a shrill siren of a horn stab) and then flipped “Blind Alley” into a barely recognizable loop on “Comin’ For Datazz.” And I haven’t even mentioned the holy triptych of “Speak Ya Clout” or tikka tikka tension on “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz.” But if I had to narrow things down to the album’s best moment, it might very well be 8.5 minutes that begin with “The Planet” and end with “Aiiight Chill.”
The former is one of the best biographical songs I know, tracing what, at heart, is a simple narrative – a boy leaves home to become a man – but it’s also the ur-hip-hop story. How many other countless hopefuls spent their nights listening to Red Alert and Marley Marl, wishing they were on (kid)? For those of us who had never been stepped foot within the tri-state, “The Planet” made Brooklyn sound mythical: a place of infinite danger and possibility. I don’t know if there’s a single Guru verse I like better than hearing him talk about giving his father a hug and then turning around – it’s a simple description laden with all kinds of meaning.
As for “Aiiight Chill,” this was one of the first examples I remembered where you got a peek behind the curtain about how artists in the game related to one another. I loved hearing Masta Ace asking Primo for advice on “making beats to fuck n—-’s heads up” or DJ Scratch inviting Preem over to “practice on these skills” or a supremely zoomed out Nas, playing Monty Alexander over the phone. The sign-off everyone used was the punchline but the real payoff is what came before they got(s) to “chill.”
If I listen to this album again after another 20 years, I’m confident I’m feel the very same way then as I do now as I did then. Brooklyn’s finest.