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.

DOOMSDAY

“No one knew me until I put on the mask.”

Well, not exactly. I was a fan of MF Doom aka Zev Love X aka Daniel Dumile since the days he was cameo-ing on 3rd Bass’s “The Gas Face.”

I stayed listening to him during the ups and downs of KMD’s career and while other artists might have hung it up after that group’s unceremonious end at the hands of Electra, Zev Love transformed into MF Doom and created one of the greatest second acts in hip-hop history.

It’s hard to believe that he died so young (except that we’ve so many die too young, least of all this year). RIP to MF Doom. RIP to Subroc. Hope the two of ya’ll are staying a positive kause in a much damaged society, wherever the two of you are now.

LABI SIFFRE: MY SONG BOXSET

If you’ll forgive some self-promotion, Labi Siffre’s 50th anniversary box set, My Song, drops today. I wrote the liner notes.

Let me back up a moment: I first discovered Labi’s music — actually, just one song at the time, “I Got The” — circa 2000 when it was sampled on both Eminem’s “My Name Is” and Jay-Z’s “Streets is Watching.” And for quite a number of years, I just thought “someone with a memorable name made a pretty good funk track.” That’s as far as things went.

Then, in 2008, Charles Aaron gave a wonderful paper about Labi at that year’s Pop Conference and for the first time, I realized there was so much more to him than just a single song. This is one of those rare cases where I can precisely pinpoint a lightbulb moment of realizing “I want to learn more about this artist.” It truly did begin with Charles’s paper.

I quickly discovered “damn, it’s really hard to find Labi’s albums in the U.S.” because none of his ‘70s LPs were ever distributed here. Hell, the CDs didn’t appear until the late ‘90s. I ponied up for int’l shipping costs from the UK and one by one, began to bring in his LPs. All of them are awesome in their own right but his 1972 LP, Crying Laughing Lying Loving absolutely floored me. As I wrote here, it was like I had been waiting my whole life to discover Labi. I was that moved by his genius.

A few years later, I wrote about Labi and his music in a lengthy post here.
It was a modest attempt to articulate part of what I found so magical about his music. As it turns out, he read it and when it came time to find someone to help pen the liners for his box set, he and his manager approached me. To say I was honored would be a massive understatement. (On a side note, even if blogging feels very “mid 2000s” now, creating Soul Sides has been extraordinary good to me over the years).

It was an…interesting process. For one, it was originally slated to be 2000-3000 words which seemed sufficient at the time. But then I realized the paucity of writing about Labi out there. It was shockingly little, all said. And so, in my desire to try to tell a story that hadn’t been told before, I began asking for more and more details. I blew past 3000 words with ease and sheepishly went back to ask “uh, so how much longer can I make this?” The reply, which was heartening, was: “as long as it needs to be.” They ended up being a bit over 7000.

Also: I’ve written my fair share of liner notes but never in such close collaboration with the artist. He preferred to conduct everything by email and so each new piece of correspondence brought forward all manners of personal details, a few corrections, the occasional poem. By the end, he had taken to copy-editing the notes. (He felt I used too many commas. Guilty as charged).

All in all, I’m very proud of the final product. This says more about how scarce extant writing about Labi is but I believe the liners for My Song comprise the most comprehensive set of biographical and discographical background about Labi ever written though I very much hope others go further and do more; he deserves it.

FLYING HIGH WITH “FALCON”

Caffe: Falcon (Godo, 197?)

Speaking of mysteries, I know next to nothing about this salsa 45 but full credit for its discovery goes to Michael Barnes who played it for me last year and I was instantly hooked.

First, I love Afro-Latin dance music that makes use of the electric piano. If you have ever sat with the glory that is Ray Barretto’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” you know how good the instrument can sound in the right hands.

However, what makes “Falcon” so memorable isn’t simply the instrumentation. The arrangement here is funky but in what I find to be a very distinct way. There’s songs that fall into a clear “Latin funk” category; take Ricardo Marrero’s “Babalonia” for example. However, “Falcon” isn’t that kind of funk tune; to me, it’s primarily a salsa dura cut that incorporates just enough funky polyrhythms — and that electric piano — to give it this subtle funk foundation while still staying true to its Afro-Cuban roots. The absolute gold standard for funky salsa cuts is Roberta Roena’s epic “Que Se Sepa” but while I don’t think “Falcon” is quite at the same level, it’s definitely in the mix with other top quality funky salsa dura jams like Luis Santi’s sizzling “Los Feligreses” from the ’70s or Peliroja’s 2014 jam “Ciudad de Nadie.” But who were Caffe? Where were they originally from? As Michael notes in his blog, he’s stumped everyone he’s played it for thus far and I’m no closer than he is to solving this particular riddle.

PHASE III MYSTERY

Richard Ryder and the Eighth Wonder: Phase III (Y’Blood, 1972)

This is a very curious 7″ EP I’ve had for years but it wasn’t until earlier today that I was thunderstruck by something about it — and specifically the song “Phase III” — that I should have picked up on a long time ago: the song is intertwined with Amanda Ambrose’s “(I Ain’t Singing No More) Sad Songs”. Fans of my Soul Sides Vol. 1 comp (or of The Artifacts) should already be well-familiar with Ambrose’s tune but it wasn’t until today that I even realized that it and “Phase III” had so much in common.

My theory — and this is purely based on circumstantial evidence — is that “Phase III” was the equivalent to a demo version that eventually was turned into “Sad Song” (as it was originally entitled) on Ambrose’s Laughing LP. For one, the Phase III EP was copyrighted in 1972, Ambrose’s album was copyrighted in ’73. Moreover, “Phase III” is mostly an instrumental, with some similarities in arrangement, but neither song immediately sounds like a cover of the other; had “Phase III” been purely an instrumental, I doubt I ever would have made any connection between the two. But around the 2:40 mark, the main hook of Ambrose’s “Sad Song” is right there. *mind blown emoji*

Backing up a sec…this whole EP is already unusual. It was bankrolled by George Youngblood on his Y’Blood imprint and in case people didn’t know who he was, the back cover conveniently tells us that he was the former defensive back for the Chicago Bears (though he was drafted by the Rams). Y’Blood only put out a handful releases, including singles by both Eighth Wonder (who I assume was some kind of family band) and Richard Ryder and it seems like each of their respective Y’Blood 45s were reissued onto this EP.

However, I don’t know to what extent Ryder or Eighth Wonder had anything to do with the song “Phase III.” On here, writing credit goes to both Youngblood and Don Trotter, the latter of whom, we are told on the cover, was the writer of “Love Land,” a minor hit for the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band in 1970. Trotter is the credited producer for the Phase III EP but notably, his name is not anywhere connected with Ambrose’s “Sad Song.” The credited writers on that song are — and this just blows my mind — Charles Wright, Catherine Rahman and Yusuf Rahman. On Ambrose’s original Laughing LP though, it’s only a “V. Rahman” who’s credited; presumably Yusuf but mis-credited with a “V” instead of “Y.”

Let’s back up even further: Yusuf Rahman was a keyboardist who helped co-write the Watts 103rd St.’s 1969 song “Comment” and he also helped arrange and play on several other Watts 103rd St. albums. As such, it seems almost certain that Rahman and Trotter knew one another; at the very least, they would have moved in the same circles. None of this explains the connection between “Phase III” and “Sad Song” however. If it truly was a Trotter composition in 1972, how did he get replaced as the credited writer in 1973 by Rahman? And if “Sad Song” was co-written by Wright, did Wright also have anything to do with the Phase III project? As far as I can tell, there’s no formal connection between Wright and Youngblood or Ryder or Eighth Wonder.

I love these little mysteries because something as simple as a song can hint at a larger world of musical communities that aren’t always obvious at first glance but once you scratch the proverbial surface, you begin to see the intersections all criss-crossing around.