Friday, April 30, 2004

Melvin Van Peebles (aka Brer Soul) w/ Earth, Wind & Fire: Sweetback's Theme
From Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Stax 1971)

"Sweetback's Theme" doesn't sound much like how you think a blaxploitation song would but then again, before "Sweetback," there were no blaxploitation songs. This comes from the soundtrack of Melvin Van Peebles' seminal Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, his cinematic missive of Black Power politics and urban rage that heralded the coming of blaxploitation into the American imagination.

What is strange about "Sweetback's Theme," is how sweet it is. For a movie about a Black hustler turned revolutionary, who kills corrupt cops and escapes into the desert with hound dogs on his trail, his theme betrays none of that darkness, rage or violence. In the movie, Sweetback and others sing over the main melodic hook: "you bled my momma! You bled my daddy!" (but you won't bleed ME!) and there is a tension between the visceral imagery of those words and the simple, cheery swing of the Earth, Wind & Fire's electric piano riff and the resonant sax that hollers in step.

"Sweetback's Theme" is not in the same league as something as cinematically dense and rich as Issac Hayes' "Shaft." Nor can the young EW&F compete with the more experienced musicianship that Curtis Mayfield would bring to bear on the "Superfly" soundtrack. But there is something (dare I say) pure about "Sweetback's" simplicity and how the repeating loop of that singing horn patiently unfolds over seven minutes. "Sweetback's Theme," like the movie that birthed it, has no standard to measure itself against, no precedent to converse with. It revels in that freedom like Sweetback revels in his, and the theme plays out, again and again, as a reminder that its namesake is still out there, still on the lam but still living free.

You bled my momma, you bled my daddy, but...You. Won't. Bleed. Me.

The Harvey Averne Dozen:You're No Good
From Viva Soul (Atlantic, 1968)

"You're No Good" kicks off the Harvey Averne Dozen's Viva Soul and the song is so good, so sublime in its affect, so remarkably not like anything else on the album that you wish Averne had pressed this up on 45 so you could have the song without the clutter of the rest of the LP to deal with. Don't get me wrong, Viva Soul is a decent Latin album in its own right and had "You're No Good" not appeared on here, I would still have found pleasure in songs like the mid-tempo mambo, "The Micro Mini." But "You're No Good" opens the album on such a stupendous note that the desperate desire for the rest of the LP to sound the same can only be met by consecutive waves of disappointment as you skip tracks to realize that "You're No Good" is some kind of aberration - lucky to exist but still alone in the world, at least the world of Viva Soul.

Averne himself isn't a great vocalist here - he belts out a passable but unremarkable performance that reminded me of a Tony Bennett knock-off in a Vegas bar. That's not quite as bad as it sounds but Averne isn't about to topple Otis Redding or Al Green off the top of the canon. What makes "You're No Good" so damn good is the chorus of female singers, sounding like the latter-day Ronettes or similar girl group. Averne sings against them in a call and response between himself and what sounds like a bevy of girlfriends he's cheated on. We hear their grievances first as the song opens on a brassy opening of horns and vibes that gives way to a funky, walking bassline and jabbing piano chords. They sing: "I don't trust you when you're out of sight/like you were last night.

On Averne's reply - "I don't want to hear anymore/enough of that jive/I know the score..." - the song brings the horns back in and the arrangement switches from soul into pop, only to swing back to soul when the women come back: "If you love me/like you say do/then make up your mind". It's a great exchange, not quite as tit-for-tat as, say, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' "Tramp" but like that classic, "You're No Good," is light and playful in its attitude too.

It's those moments, when the women are seeking their revenge that every element in this song: the arrangement, production and vocals, all come together beautifully. There is something both incredibly soulful and funky about these women's singing and it creates that moment of pop brilliance that so many songs hope for but few attain. I don't know what Averne was thinking in writing this song, insofar as the rest of the album doesn't sound much like this cut, but whatever inspired him is our blessing as well.


Monday, April 26, 2004

Emilio Santiago: Bananeira & Brother
From Emilio Santiago (CID, 1975)

I'm not as big of a fan of Brazilian (i.e. samba, bossa, etc.) as I am of Latin soul (i.e. boogaloo, guajira, etc.) but I'm trying to learn more about the former, especially since there's such a wealth of great Brazilian music. Especially when it comes to more funky and soulful material, I'm always discovering new artists, having already sampled the likes of Jorge Ben and Tim Maia. Santiago is still going strong as an artist today - he's considered a giant in the genre - but these two songs are from what I'm assuming is his first (or one of his first) albums, a self-titled affair from 1970 which covers songs by Ben, Joao Donato and others. "Bananeira" sounds like it belongs on some blaxploitation soundtrack for a movie set in the favelas of Sao Paulo while "Brother" is an incredibly soulful ode to Jesus that, despite my agnosticism, left me swooning.

By the way, call me crazy, but isn't Santiago a dead ringer for actor Luiz Guzman on this cover?

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Friday, April 23, 2004

Scribe: Theme From The Crusader & Stand Up
From The Crusader (Dirty, 2003)

Professor April Henderson, who teaches in Aotearoa/New Zealand, put me up on Scribe, a Samoan/Chinese MC living out in Aotearoa. He's the hottest MC out there right now, not simply sounding like Jay-Z but standing on top of the local rap scene like Hova too. What's interesting about both these songs is that after years of finding int'l hip-hop (i.e. anything outside the parochialism of American hip-hop) to be subpar, it's pretty damn that at this point, folks outside of the U.S. can easily hang with many of the Yankee rappers out there.

To be sure, Scribe really does owe Jay-Z some royalty points for how blatantly his style borrows from Jay's...their voices aren't that similar but on the album, he uses very similar phrases, from a simple, "yep" to proclaiming, "we made it" just like J does. That said, Scribe's flow is mostly his own and he pops nicely in the pocket with his rhymes, rhyming sans-accent and if you told me dude was out of L.A. or N.Y. I certainly would have believed you without question.

Both songs I choose here are Aotearoan anthems that big up the home country as much as Scribe himself. Of the two, DJ P-Money's beats for "Theme From the Crusader," is superior, though both of them seem to borrow a page from Just Blaze's playbook (see a trend here?). "Stand Up" is a decent club cut - I don't know if it'll have fools in the States raising the roof but I suspect that if you dropped this in some grimy Auckland club, shit would be set off like a dropped bottle of nitro.

What say ya'll?

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

posted by O.W.

Bohannon: Save Your Souls
From Stop and Go (Dakar 1973)

Someone big upped this song on their blog (sorry, forgot who at this point) but weren't able to provide the actual music so I figured I'd just fill in the gap. Stop and Go is one of those elusive albums by an artist whose other albums are relatively easy to find...just not this one (see Al Hirt's Soul in the Horn for another prime example). The further rub is that, of course, it's Bohannon's best album: mega-soulful, nice touches of jazz and funk mixed in, and on a few tracks, like this and the equally sublime "Song For My Mother," the gospel-influenced vocal nuances are beauuuutiful. Took me yeeeeears to find a copy of this LP but I've never regretted the time or effort. Someone just needs to reissue it and save everyone else the trouble, ym?

Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound: Que Se Sepa
From 5 (Fania, 1973)

I was first turned onto this song when I heard it on Freak Off, one of several excellent Latin compilations put together by UK's Harmless imprint. I then tracked it down via the magic of eBay, but just like Bohannon's Stop and Go, finding a Roena LP isn't that difficult - finding this one, however, is. One can only speculate that it's because of this song, "Que Se Sepa," hands-down, one of the illest, post-boogaloo Latin jawns I know. It kicks off with that wicked breakbeat after the intro and just whips you right onto the dancefloor and even when they give the trap set a rest, in comes in the timbales and congas and guajiraguaguanco rhythm. Fucking brilliant. I've never seen this song fail to get people's rears in gear. Ever.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Eddie Kendricks: Date With the Rain (Disco Remix)
From 12" (Duotone, 2001?)

I do not exaggerate when I say that this extended remix is one of the best things I've ever heard.

"Date With the Rain" is a most amazing dancefloor cut, like some magical song you enjoy while hopped up on E or 'shrooms except without the need for mind-altering substances. Sublimely funk/groovy, builds with patience but delivers quickly, and understands how to use repetition to maximum effect. I suppose you can enjoy this on headphones but really, you need to be knee-deep in a club, with this easing out of the speakers and you'll understand just how awesome it is.

The original song appears on Kendrick's People...Hold On which just happens to be one of the greatest soul albums of the '70s (every cut smokes) but what DJ Dimitri (yeah, of Dee-Lite fame) does on this remix is extend on the song and create something that preserves the integrity of the original yet is so much better than most people I know don't even remember how Kendrick's OG went.

The 12" of this is still readily available but I don't know if it's on CD at all (sorry ya'll - time to blow the dust off your turntables).

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Kanye West: All Falls Down (original mix)
Deleted from College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella, 2004)

Imagine you're Lauryn Hill. You've gone from one being one of hip-hop's greatest artists ever to landing somewhere between an enigma and a joke. Your career is so far gone that kids think "Doo Wop" is old school now. One day, Kanye West, one of the hottest producers in the game, calls you up and says, "hey, I've made this conscious song about the contradictions about being black and having class aspirations, blah blah blah and I really want to sample your song from the Unplugged album - you know, that double-LP that effectively destroyed your career? Anyways, I want to redeem it by making this really dope song using your voice, is that ok with you?" Somehow, you decide "no," thereby forcing Kanye to hire a sound-alike in the form of Syleena Johnson, a perfectly good Hill knock-off but the point is that she's a knock-off, not the real deal.

The song above is the original mix, using the Lauryn Hill sample, as it appeared on the early promos for Kanye's album. In the opinion of most, includes yours truly, it is the considerably superior version simply because Lauryn just sounds better. You decide.
(The song has been bootlegged onto white label vinyl)

Ghostface Killah (w/ Raekwon, Rza and Slick Rick): The Sun
Deleted from Bulletproof Wallets (Epic, 2001)

Another victim of sample clearance, this song was supposed to kick off the Bulletproof Wallets album. Simply put: one of the greatest rap songs ever recorded, so good that even the comic strip The Boondocks quote it in one Sunday panel. Honestly, when's the last time you heard a song about how great the sun is. Exactly.
(The song still appears on promo versions of the album (both CD and vinyl) and has also been bootlegged onto white label vinyl)

Pete Rock and CL Smooth: One In a Million
From Poetic Justice OST (Sony, 1993)

Possibly the only good song off the entire Poetic Justice soundtrack, this semi-obscure Pete Rock and CL Smooth song is one of their best from the era. As usual, Pete shows off a great ear for samples by lifting "Electric Surfboard" from organist Jack McDuff, milking the familiar horn signature from McDuff's song to full effect. Damn, I gotta stop - I'm getting mad nostalgic...

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

James Brown: Blind Man Can See It (from "Black Caesar" OST)

I originally wrote about this on my blog entry previous to when I started offering sound samples. Figure I should come on back and link up the song itself so you can see what I was raving about the last time. Here's the original post: determining the best James Brown album is like arguing over what flavor of milkshake is best - people have their personal preferences but you're not likely to come up with something crappy in the end. That said, you have think that the "Black Caesar" album is going to be in hot contention, ranking among the best blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s and one of the few OSTs Brown ever participated so fully in. This album helped produce numerous future classics from Brown's catalog such as "Sportin' Life," "Mama Feelgood," and "The Boss" alongside a variety of lesser known (but no less quality) cuts such as "White Lightning," "Make It Good To You," and especially the incredible "Down and Out in New York." However, the super-duper-cream-on-top-whole-milk cut is "Blind Man Can See It," - a song first introduced in the hip-hop generation by Lord Finesse, then blown the fuck up by Das Efx and most recently recycled by Jin. What makes this cut the jammy jam? It's just the memorable guitar loop that everybody samples - it initially comes in around :45 but the money hit comes after the first four bars when the theme seems to momentarily float away and then comes back hard with a short drum roll. Pure head nod moment for the rest of the song as you just ride out on James Brown's smoky groove. Makes you say unnnnnnh without the nah, nah, nah, nah.

Jesse Anderson: Let Me Back In
From 7" (Thomas, 196?)

Anderson was a Curtom-related (Mayfield's label) artist who recorded a few sides on the Thomas subsidary, most famously "Mighty Mighty." I dig on this song though, "Let Me Back In," for its slinky, soulful, funkiness, especially with that knockin' cowbell at the intro (you can never have too much cowbell). And then dig on that groovin' electric piano.

The lyrics too are hilarious. From what I can tell, dude breaks up with his girlfriend/wife in order to join his other girlfriend but she dumps him when she finds out he left his wife. THEN, he comes back, begging his old lady to "let me back in." Is he crazy? No wonder he's standing outside in the cold - dude's a moron.

Rufus feat. Chaka Khan: Sweet Thing
From Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (MCA, 1975)

If Chaka Khan never, ever did another song in her entire life, this would have been enough. I remember hearing Mary J. Blige cover it on What's the 411? and ignorant as I was, just assumed it was the original. Then I heard the original and there's no comparison - the OG is just so sublime in its soulfulness that it's untouchable (then again, I feel the same way about "At Last" by Etta James and that has stopped countless American Idol contestants from singing that tune). I hope most of you have heard this song before - seems like a shame if you haven't - but if this is your first-time to the magic that is "Sweet Thing," hey, that's just as good too.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

The Cure: Close To Me (Closet Remix)
Originally from The Head on the Door (Elektra, 1985)

Ah, time to revist my high school years in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Before I became a hip-hop head, like many APIs my age/era, I listened to modern rock: New Order, Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop Guys, Erasure and, of course, The Cure. Robert Smith was the MFin' genius of moody New Wave ballads and dance cuts and even now, some 15 years, the group's songs still resonate with the same charms, having barely aged for me (but hey, maybe that's nostalgia talking). "Close To Me" is hands-down, an all-time favorite, not just by the Cure, but of that entire era. It embodies pure pop pleasure - the kind of love song that wide-eyed teenagers can get behind but won't feel embarassed by later (compared to say, Tiffany or Debbie Gibson). When I'm feeling more somber, I'm convinced that Duke Ellington and John Coltrane's rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood," is the perfect soundtrack for falling in love but in lighter moments, "Close to Me," is like sunshine captured in a vinyl groove. The Closet Remix, by the way, is quite loyal to the original but if you really, really like it, you can find it on the group's 1997 Galore compilation.

The Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
From Doolittle (Elektra, 1989)

The Pixies fucking rock. I couldn't get enough of this song when I was back in high school and I still listen to it today when I need a boost. It has that brash opening guitar chord, ala "Hard Day's Night" and that drops right into Kim Deal's indelible bassline that becomes the song's defining signature. All in all, this is another slice of pop perfection, as good a way to spend three minutes and twenty one seconds as you could imagine.