[Note: I was interviewed the other month by one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hardy, about the Soul Sides Vol 1 comp. The interview ran this week in the LA Weekly and I thought it addressed some of the key questions that came up for different folks asking me about the making-of the anthology. – O.W.]
Ten questions with Soul Sides creator — and album curator — Oliver Wang
Written by Ernest Hardy
Oliver “O-Dub” Wang is a hip-hop fanatic, soul-music fiend, pop-culture junkie, ethnic-studies professor, DJ, obsessive blogger, music and cultural critic, husband, and dad. A familiar name to rap-music fans who’ve read his incisive reviews and essays for over a decade now (including his work in the Weekly), Wang will be teaching this fall currently lectures at Cal State Long Beach. (Full disclosure: He also edited the anthology Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide, to which I contributed.)
Recently, Wang, 33, added yet another title to his hyphenated list of accomplishments: His audioblog, Soul Sides, has made the leap from ether to earth, with a CD compilation of raw, beautiful, old-fashioned soul music. Some of it is familiar if undervalued work — Erma Franklin’s original version of “Piece of My Heart” — and some is the stuff that makes geek collectors puff their chests with crate-digging pride as exhaustive hunts bear fruit.
Then there are the subtextual revelations. Check Joe Bataan’s 1975 gem “Ordinary Guy,” in which he sweetly croons against a lovely, soft-focus salsa backdrop, “I don’t drive a beautiful car and I don’t own an elegant home . . . /I’m just an ordinary, ordinary guy/Afro Filipino, average sort of guy/That’s what I am/[an] ordinary man you left behind . . .” The track is a forerunner of the genre mashup and autobio shout-out to multiracial identity that are now the norm — and a gentle reminder that none of that shit is new.
Soul Sides is also notable, perhaps, as a sign of things to come in musical distribution: It is the second-ever CD comp to be born of an audioblog.
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L.A. WEEKLY: What was the inspiration for making the leap from audioblog to CD?
OLIVER WANG: Kevin Drost at Zealous Records was a fan of the site and offered to let me curate the comp while he’d handle the legal and clearance work. Even if I never made a dime off the comp, it was worth doing just for the opportunity to put out music that I felt strong about.
Given the fetish we as a culture have for new technology and gadgetry, an audioblogger putting out a CD seems almost quaint, like a step backward in the age of downloading and iPods. Is there some deeper statement being made in that choice?
Not at all. But the fact that it’s also being released on double vinyl is definitely a nod to the fact that all these songs originated on vinyl back in the day. The album is available for download from a few sites like Rhapsody and others. Given that its origins go directly back to an MP3 blog, we’re definitely not being Luddites about this. But for me, I still love the physical object of records. I’m glad this is on CD and vinyl just so people can have something they can actually touch and possess. That may not matter to a younger generation raised on digital music, but for me the tactile quality of records will never lose its appeal.
What is it about this music that resonates with you?
I’ve spent the better part of my career as a music critic trying to articulate that ineffable quality about music. I’m sure I’ll spend a lifetime trying to express it, always falling just a little bit short. I think the fact that so much soul comes out of both a blues and gospel tradition has partly to do with it. This was music designed to appeal to the spirit and I think my love for soul and soul-influenced music is responding to those qualities that artists were trying to evoke — the sublime, the transcendent. What Stevie Wonder would call trying to reach that “higher ground,” but in a way which is earthy and of the human heart. Mostly, it just sounds good to me.
Is there a thread, for you, linking this undervalued or overlooked soul music with hip-hop?
Hip-hop was the path through which I was led backwards into soul, funk, jazz — all this music of the past. I don’t know how many people would know about Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” — which is one of my favorite songs out of the entire Stax catalog — if not for Salt-N-Pepa’s remake/sampling of it. The fact that Lyndell’s original blows the remake out of the water just fuels my interest in finding other songs like it. I appreciate how sampling opens a door into the past, but often what you find is that the original material is far and away better than however the song gets sampled. This said, hip-hop has been a great educator.
Were there any favorite songs for which you couldn’t get clearance?
The only one I was really disappointed to lose was this great Al Green B-side which only ever came out on a 45 single in the ’70s. It was just too expensive to license, but I hope we might still be able to use it for the next volume. Hopefully, the success of this first volume will help in talking to labels the next time around and finding a way to negotiate a reasonable licensing arrangement.
How do you, as a curator, contextualize this music in a way that underscores its power and beauty but sidesteps the hipster fetishism that can sort of flatten it out — as when Moby used field recordings on Play?
Honestly, I never really thought or worried about that. I’ve been a DJ for 13 years, a music critic for 12, a music scholar for 10 . . . My relationship to music, even when “professional,” has always been underscored by a personal passion. You have to be a little crazy to spend the kind of time I have on collecting records and writing about them. So I’ve always just gone where my instincts have led me, including with this comp. I will say one thing, I was never interested in picking songs strictly for the sake of obscurity. A number of the songs on here have been comped before, and that didn’t bother me. I felt like they could still use some shine — like the Lyndell or Erma Franklin tracks. Even a song that I don’t think many people have heard before, like “Keep My Baby Warm,” isn’t necessarily the rarest example of gospel soul out there but it’s a damn good song, and one of my personal favorites. I don’t know if it’s sexy enough for the hipster crowd to give a damn. But if you can’t feel the song, you just can’t feel.
Do you think the means through which we get our music affect our relationship to it? There’s been some theorizing that kids who can just download a song or assemble hundreds of options on an iPod don’t forge the same emotional connection to music that previous generations did — that it’s now much more disposable.
I think the sheer volume of music that exists today is overwhelming for someone like me — and I’m only 33. I definitely grew up on the cusp of the pre-Internet/post-Internet world. The studies I’ve seen suggest that people value music less because it’s so ubiquitous, but what encourages me is the fact that people still want music in their lives — and I definitely think specific songs resonate with people. That’s why I love Ne-Yo’s [current single] “So Sick.” The chorus is all about why love songs are so addictive as he bemoans, “Why can’t I turn off the radio?” He’s a young dude but he gets it. His listeners, I think, get it — especially since the song has topped the charts. We’re not in a world where music has become simply background noise yet. I doubt we ever will, even once the 100-terabyte brain-implant iPods come out.
Are there plans to make this a series or is this a one-off deal?
Kevin Drost just e-mailed me the other day and asked, “So, should we start thinking about Volume 2?” We haven’t mapped anything out yet, but for Volume 2 I’d either want to do jazz songs, both vocal and instrumental, or a personal love of mine: cover songs. I put out a mix CD of cover songs, on my own, a few years back and I obsessively collect soul, jazz, reggae, calypso, psych, etc., albums with interesting covers. A recent acquisition is a Polish-language rock album with a cover of Bill Withers’ “Kissin’ My Love.” Crazy.
[Note: at this point, we’re actually thinking about a third concept entirely. But more on that in the months to come.]
What’s your favorite song on the compilation, and why?
Ha, that’s like asking me which of my kids I love the best, though, uh, I only have one. It’s a close tie. “Keep My Baby Warm” was the first song I knew I absolutely, positively wanted on this comp. It just had to be on there. I want as many people to hear it as possible. But my favorite from-the-gut song is probably “Piece of My Heart” by Erma Franklin. When I first heard it and then learned how Erma’s original was always overshadowed by Janis Joplin’s cover, it just made the heart-wrenching power of the song so much more poignant. It’s so beautiful yet absolutely devastating.
Ernest Hardy’s collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions, published by Red Bone Books, comes out this week.