DILLA TIME, ALL THE TIME

Last week, I had the privilege of being in conversation with Dan Charnas about his new book, detailing the life, career, and afterlife of James “J Dilla” Yancey: Dilla Time. The event was held on April 21, 2022, at Artform Studio in Highland Park (Los Angeles) and it was me, Dan and Peanut Butter Wolf, discussing Dilla’s musical and personal journeys, complete with an annotated playlist. You can listen to the conversation part of the event here.

First off: Dilla Time is a fantastic book, easily one of the best musical biographies I can remember reading and certainly amongst the very best ever devoted to a hip-hop artist. As good as the stories therein are — and trust me, they’re good even when they’re also low-key depressing — it’s Dan’s multi-pronged approach to telling “the Dilla story” that I especially appreciated: this isn’t just biological, it’s also socio-historical as well as (accessibly) musicological. And that latter point — which is reflected in the book’s very title — is where I, personally, gained some of the greatest insight into understanding just what it is about Dilla’s music that was so affecting.

I told this to Dan last week but after Dilla passed, I had pitched a piece to NPR about the producer in which I emphasized how the feel of his production was key to his legacy. At the time, I had no idea how he did it or what was happening, only that this feel was there. It wasn’t until I read Dilla Time that I fully appreciated what Yancey was doing to create this kind of affect through a mix of innovative techniques that included freestyled drum programming, slowing down samples to bring out its nuances, and optimizing the functions on samplers/sequencers to subvert timing conventions and how rhythms are experienced.

Take one of my favorite Jay Dee productions of all time (and one of his first recorded ones): the Pharycde’s “She Said” remix. If you’re unfamiliar with the source material, it’s from a live recording of Gato Barbieri’s “El Arriero”. You can hear the remix loop in the original sample but you can also, instantly, sense how there’s something profound different between Barbieri’s original vs. Dilla’s transformation of it: it’s not just slower (which, as Dan notes, makes it feel more melancholy and somber) but the basic rhythm behind it has been chopped and reconstructed too. That riff from Barbieri is certainly good on its own merits but what Dilla did with it was sublime.

If you’d like some more Dilla-centered tunes, my Shades of Soul radio show that aired the same day of the event was also devoted to his music and Dan’s book. Check it out here.

My huge thanks to the folks at Artform Studio and Dan. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up Dilla Time yet…whatcha waiting for?

(Originally written for my Soul Sides Stray newsletter)

REMEMBERING BETTY DAVIS

Betty Davis passed away the other week at age 77 and as many of my readers likely know, I have spent many years in awe of her and her music and had the privilege to interview her for the liner notes that accompanied three of her Light in the Attic reissues (you can read the liners for the first of those reissues, Betty Davis, here). It’ll be one of the great honors of my writing career to have had that opportunity and play a small role in her re-discovery.

NPR Music was gracious enough to let me write an appreciation essay for her: “Game was her middle name.” Just a quick excerpt from that:

Betty Mabry Davis, who passed away early Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh at the age of 77, was an intensely enigmatic artist, having spent the first 30 years of her life on a remarkable ascent into the spotlight only to utterly vanish from public view for the next 30 years. Up until 2007, when the first legitimate reissues of her music began to roll out, the primary way you would have discovered her at all was by randomly finding one of her three studio albums in a record store bin. Once you did though, it was like being let in on a secret that you instantly wanted to share with others.

Her songs were filled with gritty yet sultry style of electrified funk — dirtier than James with more blues than Sly. Likewise, as a vocalist, she shared little in common with her gospel-trained contemporaries with their perfect pitch and vocal control; she took her cues from growling blues singers like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Moreover, she was doing all this as an unapologetically outspoken, sexually empowered performer who shocked the Black cultural establishment of her time. Both musically and professionally, she was an artist without much precedent nor peer and because of that, she’s been the object of constant fascination and inspiration for decades. I always think of how Joi, the accomplished neo-soul singer/songwriter, once told me that when she was first introduced to Betty’s music almost 30 years ago, it was a “revelation that I was not alone.”

I was also just on the NY Times Popcast podcast with my old friend Jon Caramanica, plus Dr. Maureen Mahon, and Jon Pareles, talking about Betty’s legacy. 

I also dedicated this month’s Shades of Soul radio show to Betty and her music but alas, it’s not available in the U.S. (but hey, if you got a VPN…).

In case you’re interested in learning more about Betty, here’s a few other things I’ve written about her that should be publicly available:

I’ll leave you with two favorite tunes, one from her, one inspired by her:

Peaceful journey to you, Betty.

(Originally written for my Soul Sides Stray newsletter)

JOE CRUZ AND THE CRUZETTES: LOVE SONG

Joe Cruz and the Cruzettes: Love Song, on At The Hyatt Regency Hotel (Villar, 1973)

Though I have a small collection of Filipinx-related records, I freely admit I originally learned about this song from the 2013 French comp, Beach Diggin’ Vol. 1 (I don’t know anything about compilers Guts and Mambo, I gotta say: this comp had incredibly good taste). Luckily, an acquaintance in the P.I. was able to hook up a copy and “Love Song” is on my upper tier of great cover songs.

It’s really more of a cover-of-a-cover. The original version of the song dates back to the UK’s Lesley Duncan who wrote and recorded the song first in 1969 and then her and Elton John dueted on it a year later. From there, dozens of other covers followed, including by everyone from Dionne Warwick to Olivia Newton John. Most versions though keep true to Duncan’s folksy, minimalist original. Then came Lani Hall.

Before releasing her debut solo album, Sun Down Lady in 1972, Hall was best known as a lead singer with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (she and Herb Alpert also married a year later and unlike many music industry couples, they remain married 48 years later). Alpert produced the album, including Hall’s cover of “Love Song,” and while the arrangement doesn’t significantly depart from Duncan’s, there’s at least two notable changes. First, Alpert had drummer Jim Gordon lay down a slow, strong backbeat on a tune that never even had any drums originally. Even more significantly, Alpert had Clarence MacDonald play a distinctive keyboard melody that also wasn’t on Duncan’s record. The overall effect is to make Hall’s cover more soulful, with just a touch of funk.

Joe Cruz and the Cruzettes took it a few steps further in that direction. The house band at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Manila, Cruz and the Cruzettes were part of the almighty Cruz clan, one of the most influential musical families in the P.I. They recorded their first album in 1972 and given that the group included covers of Malo, Dusty Springfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, it’s little surprise that for their second album, they would have gravitated more to Hall’s “Love Song” than other versions of the song.

Their cover clearly is riffing on Hall’s cover. Cruz himself is playing that aforementioned keyboard melody on organ (and he might have been double-handing two keyboard melodies at once, either that or they were overdubbed). The song has other notable changes too, especially with that strong downbeat on the one accented by what sounds like the bass (played by Mori Cruz) and/or rhythm guitar (Boyet Cruz), all with that soulful backbeat (Cesar Cruz) that Alpert had added for Hall. It’s unclear who the lead singer on this track is though I assume it’s Baby de Guzman or Monette Cruz but either way, the vocals are well done here and help bring out the melancholic qualities of Duncan’s original.

You just read issue #5 of The Soul Sides Stray. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter or subscribe here.

DERRICK LARA’S “HELLO STRANGER”

Derrick Lara: Hello Stranger (Masai, 1982?)

In my humble opinion, Barbara Lewis’s 1963 hit, “Hello Stranger” is one of the best jukebox singles of all time. Now, I might think this because it does appear in at least two jukebox movie scenes that I know of, most (recently) famously, in one of the last scenes in Moonlight as well as (perhaps not coincidentally) in one of the last scenes of last year’s Giri/Haji series on Netflix. But beyond those scenes incepting my above claim, I also think Lewis’s is a song absolutely suffused in nostalgia — just listen to the lyrics — and I’d argue that since at least the 1970s, jukeboxes have been imbued with nostalgic symbolism (at the time, it was for the 1950’s) and continues to have that totemic quality (watch any of Wong Kar-Wai’s early films for example).

Anyways, this brings me to Derrick Lara’s 1982 cover, originally recorded for Masai Records, a spin-off of Jamaican American producer Lowell “Big Tanka” Hill’s Tanka imprint. I feel like Lewis’s original translates incredibly well to reggae, especially in how a riddim can carry that rhythm guitar over with ease. Lara’s is hardly the only example but it is, to me, one of the better one’s out there, a perfect distillation of what early ’80s lovers rock sounded like.

The one thing that initially threw me is that I didn’t realize how good Lara’s falsetto was so I initially assumed it was his sister Jennifer Lara singing on here (she actually covered the song itself in the mid 1990s) but nope, that is Derrick hitting those sweet high notes.

Best I know, there is no 7” version of Lara’s cover though the British version (on Pama) came out on 10” which was fairly unusual for the label overall though relatively common ~1982 for whatever reason.

You just read issue #4 of The Soul Sides Stray. You can also browse the full archives of this newsletter or subscribe here.

ADMIN INVITES US TO “STEP INTO LIGHT”

This post was originally written for the Soul Sides Stray newsletter. Subscribe here.

Admin: Step Into Light (white label, 2021)

I moved up to the Bay Area in the early ’90s when the acid jazz scene was popping off there but alas, I never took advantage to go to the central parties at Nickie’s BBQ in the Upper Haight and other venues where folks like DJ Greyboy or Mark Farina would spin when they were in town. That said, the sound of acid jazz was there in the background when I was learning to become a DJ and even if I didn’t spin a ton of it, I was more than aware of its influence in the worlds of hip-hop and dance music.

Maybe that’s why when I heard “Step Into Light” as an Instagram post from Friends of Sound founder David Haffner I was all “gimme that beat, fool” about it. I had never heard of Bristol’s Admin before that but no matter, I was instantly into the whole sound/feel of his latest single.

“Step Into Light” is clearly influenced by Admin’s long history working with jazz, deep house, and similar dance styles. I’m a sucker for songs that begin with a good piano loop so this caught my ear from jump. But I like how it patiently builds over the course of the opening 16 bars, not bringing in the heavy drums until you’ve had some quality time, soaking in that slow burn intro. I’m also not normally a fan of sax but the way it’s used in this dreamy (vs. saxy-sax) way is fine by me. Like I said, the whole vibe takes me back to the era of Farina’s Mushroom Jazz mixes.

Admin was generous enough to share some of the making-of details behind the song. For one, he started working on it at the beginning of the CV19 pandemic:

it was pretty bleak in the UK during a winter lockdown and I think a lot of people including myself were finding solace in listening and producing music. The names of the tracks are reminders to keep on moving forward and to take time on yourself [b-side is entitled “Reflect + Heal”].

Musically, Admin explained that he was drawing on some of his favorite influences: jazz, house and hip-hop and while he wasn’t giving up his sources, his samples on here reflected his usual production process:

I’ll usually just pick something out of my collection, just on a hunch, and play through listening for anything that can be used for a track. I remember both tracks just fell into place, which is always a good sign when making beats.

Lastly, I wanted to know why he decided to release this as a white label vs. a more formal release and it had everything to do with the context in which the songs were created:

I needed to keep myself busy and was at a stage where I had put out a few edit whitelabels previously, so it all just clicked really. I wanted this release to be personal.

That partly explains why he opted to release this as a white label:

The project came about quite organically at the start of the COVID pandemic. I needed to keep myself busy and was at a stage where I had put out a few edit whitel abels previously, so it all just clicked really. I wanted this release to be personal.

My thanks to Admin for his time and Dave Haffner for putting me up on this glorious slice of hopefulness. “Step Into Light” b/w “Reflect + Heal” are available for digital purchase via his Bandcamp account.. The 500 units of the physical copies sold out quickly and though they still pop up, you’ll have to hunt them down.

SKYE’S “AIN’T NO NEED”: A REVISIT

(This was originally created for the new Soul Sides Stray newsletter. Subscribe here.)

Skye: Ain’t No Need (Unity Edit) (Anada, 1976)

This is a revisit of sorts though I haven’t written about the Skye single since 2008. It’s a disco 45 where I’m continually surprised that dancers don’t seem to adore it as much as I do. In my more active DJing days, I was convinced it would be a floor-filler and while it wasn’t quite a floor-killer, it just never produced the kind of reaction I assumed/hoped for. People just treated it like…whatever and it made me want to grab a mic and shout “you fools, this is amazing! What’s wrong with the lot of you?!”

But c’est la vie. Maybe I’ve had the wrong crowds. Or maybe I’m just alone on this hill (I don’t think so though).

Skye traces its beginning back to JFK High School in Richmond CA where members of the school jazz band, including Johnnie “Sargent” Tucker, Kevin Burton, Carl Lockett, Kevin Lockett, Michael Jeffries, Michael Griggs and Marciel Garner, formed into Two Things in One. They drew the interest of Ray Dobard’s prolific Bay Area label, Music City, who released their first single “Silly Song/Snag Nasty” as the Music City Two In One in 1971 but later, the group’s name was changed to The Two Things In One by 1973. Officially, they only released two more singles on Music City but the bulk of all their recordings were compiled back in 2011 for the Together Forever anthology..

In 2011, I interviewed Alec Palao, who compiled that anthology, for my Sidebar podcast and he was the first person from whom I learned about the connection between Two Things In One and Skye; totally blew my mind since I knew of both groups but not how they were linked. Skye was formed by most of the former members of The Two Things In One after a relocation to L.A. to continue pursuing recording opportunities. This included lead singer Michael Jeffries, drummer Marcel Garner, bassist Sargent Tucker, guitarists Carl Lockett and Michael Griggs, plus newcomer Greg Levias on keys.

Skye was signed to Anada, a subsidiary of A&M. The imprint only released two singles in the ’70s, both collectible disco jams: the aforementioned “Ain’t No Need” and a self-titled release from Family Tree. (Anada also placed the “disco versions” of both songs on a very sought-after 12”.

Back in 2008, writing about about songs, I had this to say about “Ain’t No Need”:

“Ain’t No Need” is the kind of song I want to wrap around me like a sleeping bag – everything about this is sublime to me. It’s practically all chorus in essence but the chord progressions and instrumentation combine so beautifully that you can lose yourself inside the groove forever.

Let me add (13 years later): the main groove powering the song feels like the platonic ideal of what great disco should sound like: driving and energetic but very importantly, also uplifting. If Jeffries’s lyrics are to be taken at face value, this is a breakup song but it doesn’t feel like one, quite the opposite. It feels euphoric, even perhaps spiritual in how the groove and Jeffries’s vocals keep cycling over and over. It becomes a literally repetitive song yet it’s anything but static in its kineticism. This is precisely why I don’t understand it doesn’t light up the dance floor; I find it completely irresistable in making me want to move something.

In any case, a few year ago, Jeffries and Garner sold off dead stock copies of “Ain’t No Need” and in doing so, helped fill in some of the history behind its recording, namely that it was taped during a 10 hour session in the spring of 1976 and released a few months later in the summer.

The outstanding questions I’d still have: what studio was it taped at? Why did A&M create Anada and why did it have so few releases? How was the single initially received? Etc. More I think about this, the song would make a great candidate for a future Single Servings episode.

THE NAIROBI SISTERS: TAKING YOU TO THE PROMISED LAND

(This was originally created for the new Soul Sides Stray newsletter. Subscribe here.)

The Nairobi Sisters: Promised Land (Gay Feet, 1974)

“Funky reggae” is a thing but I’m not one who needs my riddims to be laced with breakbeats. That said…when I first heard “Promised Land” in late 2016, I did think “damn, this is pretty good as a riddim with a back beat.”

I hadn’t realized that the Beatnuts had already made use of the song’s bassline all the way back in ‘92 for Kurious’s “A Mansion and a Yacht.”; it wasn’t until ATCQ looped it for “Whateva Will Be” off We Got It From Here that I took notice.

It’s hard to find much out about who the Nairobi Sisters were. The one factoid mentioned is that at one of them was Sister Terrie Nairobi but whether that was a stage name or legal name is unclear and I’ve yet to turn up much about who the other “sisters” may have been. The (slightly) clearer lineage concerns the other credited group, The Gaytones, originally founded by Judy Mowatt (of future I Threes fame), Beryl Lawrence and Merle Clemonson. The Gaytones backed a variety of artists for producer Sonia Pottinger, including on Gay Feet, the imprint “Promised Land” first came out on albeit listed as the “Narobh Sisters.” At least one source claims that Mowatt herself was one of the Sisters but again, I can’t confirm any of this.

Just to add more layers of mystery, there’s no producer credited on the two Gay Feet releases of the single (1974 and 1974) so while reasonably could assume it was Pottinger, the issue becomes more clouded once you see the song’s other versions appear in 1975. That year, “Promised Land” appeared on two separate labels, on two separate continents. In the UK, it was releaesd on the Jamatel imprint, this time with Winston Jones being credited as both writer and producer. Jones had previously worked with both Pottinger and the Gaytones for the 1973 single “You Make Me Cry” so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he had a hand in “Promised Land” (though it doesn’t explain why the Gay Feet versions didn’t credit him).

The other “Promised Land” release from ‘75, appearing on the Brooklyn imprint Flames, is possibly the most unique of the bunch. Best as I can tell — and I don’t have all four separate releases to verify this 100% — is that the vocal version of “Promised Land” is identical across all of them. It’s the flipside dub/version on Flames that departs from its siblings. On the original Gay Feet version side, it starts with a stripped down conga/bassline intro before the main beat kicks in and the sax solo, which appears on the A-side, is present here as well. The Flames dub has some major differences:

  1. It uses the same drum roll intro as the A-side rather that conga/bassline intro on the Gay Feet dub.
  2. More importantly, the Flames dub adds a new drum kit. I initially thought it may have simply been a new mix but this absolutely sounds like someone was brought in to redo the drum track as the snare on the dub version is crisp in a way that doesn’t exist on the vocal version and moreover, the drum patterns are different too. It juices the funk factor a few levels.
  3. There’s no sax solo. Instead, you get a drum and bass break during the bridge.

All of which is to say — and perhaps I shouldn’t say this because I own a Gay Feet version but not the Flames — but if you’re going to drop coin on only one copy of this single, you probably want the Flames issue. That said, I don’t want to undersell how great the vocal version — which is the same across all of them, remember — is, in its performance, in the sentiments of lyrics, in the horn section (though that sax solo is take it/leave it to me).

Introducing the Soul Sides Stray

I created Soul Sides in the 2000s, at a time when blogging was a breakthrough way to share ideas and writing. Then in 2010s, I turned my energy towards podcasting at a time in which that was the breakthrough content delivery system. Well, in the 2020s thus far, it feels like things have gone full circle with the newsletter boom.

On a whim, I decided to use the Buttondown platform to create my own newsletter, The Soul Sides Stray (a nod to the fact that issues will be…sporadic). Part of this is driven by necessity because if you have been a subscriber to Soul Sides via email, the previous service that delivered those updates – Feedburner – has now abandoned the feature. I’ve migrated all my subscribers over to Buttondown now and it’s easy to unsubscribe.

If you’re brand new and want to subscribe, just go here.

Will any of this be fundamentally different from just posting a blog post here? Probably not. But I’m always looking for new ways to invigorate my own interest in writing so consider this a test run/experiment. It may fizzle but at least for the moment, it’s worth it to me to just try this out.

For my inaugural issue, I wrote about the Nairobi Sisters’ enigmatic “Promised Land” from the mid-70s and I’ll create a new post here to mirror it. And meanwhile, I may raid my own archives to revisit old posts and find ways to refresh them. We’ll see…

TIME CHANGES, TIME FLIES

Sometime around the release of “Swan Lake” but before the Melodica EP, Jeff “DJ Zen” Chang hit me with a version of the Radio Sole cassette filled with Solesides tunes. It was a mix of already out or soon-to-be-out songs by various members, as well as freestyles, and most tantalizing, at least for me, was the addition of a long, 5+ minute song that ended Side A called “Changes” that featured the Gift of Gab rhyming over a melancholy DJ Shadow beat.

I loved “Changes” and vibe-wise, it would have been perfect on Melodica but for whatever reason, it was left off both the U.S. and U.K. versions of the EP. The only place it can be found is on the Japanese CD issue; go figure.

I just noticed that Shadow quoted from it in his testimonial to Gab’s passing: “it’s not done ’til it’s done.” “Changes,” of course, is a song about transformation, about living life one step, one day at a time.

I got to meet and know many of the OG Solesides crew in those days but not Gab; I met him maybe once or twice and that was it. But I knew his and X’s music, marveling at their paired talents, captivated by their ideas, lyrical, musical, spiritual and otherwise. I began posting music reviews on my personal website in the late ‘90s and when I needed a clever name for them, I went with Soul Sides, an obvious homage to Solesides. Partly, their name just sounded really cool to me but it was also because I vibe with their ethos and aesthetic. This is a ramble without a point except to say that all these years later, I remain so thankful to the vision of the original Solesides collective, especially Blackalicious, especially Gab. Peace be with you.

THE 2021 POP CONFERENCE/CONVERGENCE

I wanted to plug something I’ve been working on for months, this year’s Pop Conference which starts this Thursday, April 22, and goes through Sunday, April 25.

For those unfamiliar, the Pop Con is an annual gathering of music writers, scholars, artists and fans to get together for a few days and present papers, panels and roundtables about a slew of topics related to, well, pop music. It is, by far, one of the favorite things I’ve been involved with for the past 20 years.

For this year’s conference – dubbed the Pop Convergence because of its virtual nature – I helped organize, program and produce it. I’m really proud of what our team pulled together and I would love to see you all stop by to check out any of our sessions. It’s all free and open to the public. You just need to register at popconference.org.

Besides the daytime sessions of panels and roundtables, we have some awesome Friday (April 23) evening events, kicking off at 5:15pm PST with the Flower Bomb crew leading an hour long dedication to the music of Stevie Wonder!

Then Pop Con co-producer Jason King will be in convo with DJ D-Nice, talking about spinning music during lockdown. And I’m incredibly excited by the evening closer: a two hour Midnight Musical extravaganza, curated by Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, which will take us deep into the heart of contemporary gospel and African American musical traditions.

Again, all of this is free and open to the public. Just visit popconference.org to register.