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?
Folks who know me know that I was quite the fan of this battle. I might have, uh, helped with getting dubs of it out there. Anyway…amazingly, until now I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen video footage from that night and this short doc about the battle was a blast from the past with everything it includes. Nice job, Shomari!
2019 was a good balance between new music I discovered/enjoyed vs. old tunes I’m continually finding via records. I find that raising a teenager helps with the former and while I would never try to pass myself off – these days – as having a finger of the musical zeitgeist, I think it’s valuable to stay engaged with new music coming out. Anyways…I’m going to flip this from the round-ups of the last few years and start with the old tracks I gave heavy run to last year. (Not in ranked order)
1. The Rascals: My World (1968)
So…yeah, I slept. I think the only reason I even came across it last year was because of the 3 Ft. High and Rising anniversary mixtape. Anyways, this is an example of a perfect ’60s pop song in terms of all its core elements: the vocal interplay is key, the instrument and arrangement decisions are lush without being overbaked, and the hook is a legit ear worm.
2. Karen Dalton: Are You Leaving For the Country? (1971)
Credit for this goes to Jason Woodbury who brought in the Dalton LP for our Heat Rocks episode. I find the song haunting and melancholy and even this city boy isn’t immune to its sentiment.
3. Basabasa Experience: Homowo (1979)
Earlier this summer, I was crashing for a couple of nights with my friend Hua and in his office, he has a small stack of records and this was near the top. I was intrigued by the title and asked about it and he just put it on and I was instantly smitten. It’s easily the best African disco LP I’ve ever heard and “Homowo” is a standout thanks to those opening synths and the lyrics.
4. Italian Asphalt and Pavement Company: Check Yourself (1970)
No shade on The Intruders, who originally recorded this Gamble/Huff tune, but this cover by the IAP Co. is straight crossover fire.
5. Ohio Penitentiary 511 Jazz Ensemble: Psych City (1971)
The best prison spiritual jazz LP ever recorded. Ok, maybe the only but seriously, this whole album is a gem. Read more here.
6. Kalle & L’African Team De Paris : Africa Boogaloo (1971)
I’ve long been a fan of New York boogaloo influences returning to its African roots and this single, written/produced by Manu Dibango, is a stellar example of the genre.
7. Nina Simone: Cosi Ti Amo (1970)
The High Priestess taking it higher for an Italian jukebox-only cover of her “To Love Somebody,” sung in Italian. I have Y La Bamba’s Luz Mendoza to thank for this since I came across it when she chose Simone’s LP for her Heat Rocks episode.
8. R.D. Burman: Dance Music (1976)
Listening to Freddie Gibbs/Madlib’s “Education” (see below) compelled me to track its sample source back to this R.D. Burman-produced Bollywood marvel that packs in four movements in so many minutes. I find the whole song to be magical but the portion that kicks off a little after two minutes in is the best.
9. Herman Davis: Gotta Be Loved (1971)
A white whale that took me a few years to hunt down, I think of this as a repentant playboy’s anthem. Love the whole groove of this one-off single from St. Louis MO’s Davis, especially the plinkling piano after “I hear the raindrops” opening line.
10. The Delfonics: He Donâ€™t Really Love You (1968)
Talk about coming out the gate: this is the Delfonics’ first single and it’s a masterful deep/sweet soul tune. The hook is massive and shout out to whoever is working the kettle drum on this.
11. Sweet Daddy Reed: I Believe To My Soul (1969)
Came across this via my dude Pablo: Sweet Daddy Reed takes Ray Charles’s original and strips it down to its bluesy bones. So deep, so good.
12. Breakers Two: I’m Gonna Get Down (1965)
When I came upon this in Amsterdam’s awesome Wax Well Records, I assumed it was an early electro single given the artist name and song title but nope: it’s a gorgeous island soul single from Guyana.
13. Joby Valente: Tu N’es Pas Riche, Tu N’es Pas Beau (1970)
Same trip to Amsterdam also brought me to Paris and I scooped this (plus the “Africa Boogaloo” single from earlier) at the ace Superfly Records. Originally from Martinique, Valente recorded several sides for the French/Guadalupe label Aux Ondes and this B-side is a killer blend of her voice with some soul boulder goodness on the track.
14. Members of the Staff: Stop the Bells (1972)
Bought this one off of the aforementioned Hua: a Leon Haywood-produced, Gene Page-arranged, local L.A. tear-jerker that’s definitely NOT what you want to play at a wedding.
15. Fully Guaranteed: We Canâ€™t Make It Together (1972)
One of the last things I picked up in 2019, I love how this is an answer/rebuke track to the 1970 soft rock hit, “Make It Together.” Take that, Bread!
Ok, onto the new joints….
1. Jamila Woods: Betty
I mean…Jamila made a song about Betty Davis. That’s already frickin’ awesome but it’s also my favorite tune off her Legacy! Legacy!” Those opening piano chords lure you in and I was hooked all the way through the stinger. I just wish it was longer but hey, I don’t want to be greedy.
2. Valerie June: Cosmic Dancer
Would I have guessed that Valerie would absolutely smash a T-Rex cover? Actually, yes, yes I would. The melancholic beauty of her rendition is just sublime.
3. Bazzi: I.F.L.Y.
This might be the most “Spotify sound” track on my list but if I’m a victim of the algorithm, I’m ok with that. Give me all the mellifluous guitar R&B beats.
4. Normani: Motivation
This feels like retro-Destiny’s Child and I mean that in all the best ways.
5. Los Retros: Someone to Spend Time With
I’m fine with Tapia’s general sound but it’s the pairing of his voice with Firelordmelisa’s that makes this work as well as it does.
My only knock: why is there no 45 for this yet?!?!?!
6. UMI: Sukidakara
UMI is one of my favorite new artist discoveries and I love that she gets to bust out her Japanese skills on this one. My 14 y.o. was already into her sound but discovering that UMI is half-Japanese (like her) endeared her even more.
7. Samm Henshaw: Church
London’s Henshaw is also one of my favorite new artist discoveries. I thought his 2018 single, “Broke” was stellar and this new gospel-infused single is similarly awesome. Glory glory hallelujah.
8. Kota the Friend: Chicago Diner
The lyrics here are…just ok but the vibe? Cookies in the oven on a Sunday, indeed.
9. Lady Wray: Come On In
As the late Matthew Africa would have called this: it’s a soul boulder.
So. Damn. Heavy.
10. Brainstory: Beautyful Beauti
Straight outta the Inland Empire, Brainstory’s Buck was one of my favorite albums of 2019 and this single, in particular, embodies everything great about their sound/style.
11. G Yamazawa: Good Writtens Vol. 5
I’m digging G’s entire “Good Written” series so this really was a toss up between equals. Regardless, I’m hyped for whenever he puts out some new studio material in 2020.
12. Amber Mark: Love is Stronger Than Pride
Technically from 2018 but no song got more early 2019 play than Mark’s luscious riff on Sade’s classic.
13. Solange: Stay Flo
I’m not sure how a song can sound sparse and lush at the same time but here we are.
14. Freddie Gibbs, Madlib, Yasiin Bey, Black Thought: Education
I suppose this is lab-engineered to appeal to ’90s heads like myself but I don’t care. Having these three cats flow over that R.D. Burman loop (see above) is lo-fi gold.
15. Lizzo: Truth Hurts
Artist of the year and it’s not particularly close. We’re all in Lizzo’s world now.
This tweet reminded me that I wrote about DJ Danger Mouse’s much-lauded mash-up album, Grey Album (combining Jay-Z’s Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album) back in 2004 for the SF Bay Guardian. As their archives are still slowly being brought back into function, here’s the original copy I filed with my editor back then (enhanced with links to some of the songs but of course, The Grey Album isn’t available through any legit channels because of copyright).
Shades of WhiteÂ
By Oliver Wang
In late 1968, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis released Mother Natureâ€™s Son, 10 cover songs based on The Beatlesâ€™ White Album, itself barely a month old. Bringing together forward-thinking blues producer Marshall Chess (the Chess Recordsâ€™ scion) and Cadet Recordsâ€™ in-house arranger-extraordinaire Charles Stepney, Lewis and Co. mined the hodge-podge of The White Album and created a surprisingly affective mix of delicately textured ballads (â€œMother Natureâ€™s Sonâ€) and funk-tinged groovers (â€œCry, Baby, Cryâ€).
At its best, Mother Natureâ€™s Son wonderfully re-imagines The White Album in ways that both pay homage to the original source but allow Lewis, Chess and Stepney their own room to maneuver. For example, the albumâ€™s finest moment comes on â€œJulia,â€ as Stepney re-arranges Lennonâ€™s plain, quiet ballad into a exquisite wave of sweeping sentiment punctuated by Lewisâ€™ elegant tinklings. A familiarity with the Beatlesâ€™ version certainly doesnâ€™t detract from Lewisâ€™ cover but itâ€™s not a prerequisite either. The mark of a good cover/remake is that it nods back to its progenitor but still stands on its own.
In this respect, Mother Natureâ€™s Son shares an unlikely resonance with a mix-CD 36 years its junior: DJ Danger Mouseâ€™s Grey Album. Danger Mouse works with a simple, brilliant premise: he remixes Jay-Zâ€™s recent Black Album by using samples solely from The White Album. Itâ€™s a gimmick to be sure, but high concept gimmick as DM brings together Brooklynâ€™s finest with Liverpoolâ€™s Fab 4 like youâ€™ve never heard before.
Some quick background: When Jay-Z released The Black Album, Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam made sure that an entire acapella version was also widely available. Nas and Columbia Records were the first to put this idea into play and by last fall, four different mix-CDs appeared, including 9th Wonderâ€™s Godâ€™s Stepson and Soul Supremeâ€™s Soulmatic, remixing Nasâ€™ Godâ€™s Son and Stillmatic respectively. With The Black Album, at least five mix-CDs have already appeared â€“ note that Jay-Zâ€™s LP is barely two months old â€“ including DMâ€™s Grey Album, Kev Brownâ€™s Brown Album, Kardinal Offishall and Solitairâ€™s Black Jays Album and Princeâ€™s Purple Album (that last one was a joke, but you never know).
Danger Mouseâ€™s Grey Album sets itself apart far from the pack. This is no trucker-hat hipster mash-up that lazily jams a Jay-Z acapella over â€œRevolution 9.â€ The only time DM uses a truly obvious sample is lifting the familiar melody of â€œWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsâ€ for his remix of â€œWhat More Can I Say?â€ but most of The Grey Album disassembles The White Album into small sonic shreds and builds from there.
For example, for â€œDirt Off My Shoulders,â€ Danger Mouse cuts up Lennonâ€™s croons from â€œJuliaâ€ and stutters it into a beat that would make Timbaland proud. DMâ€™s remix of â€œ99 Problemsâ€ tears into â€œHelter Skelterâ€ and lifts portions from at least three different points to craft a track that rivals Rick Rubinâ€™s raucous original. One of the best remixes is â€œJustify My Thug,â€ a song that originally suffered from DJ Quikâ€™s dull, plodding production. DM takes a guitar lick from â€œRocky Raccoonâ€ and then overlays a chopped-up stab from â€œRevolution 1â€ creating an incredible sounding remake that improves the appreciation for Jay-Z lyrics since youâ€™re now more invested in actually listening to the song.
Danger Mouse also makes you hear the Beatles differently. My friend Hua Hsu and I agreed that when we listen to The White Album now, we subconsciously start checking for potential beats (i.e. why didnâ€™t DM sample â€œDonâ€™t Pass Me Byâ€, that fool!) or get thrown off when the Beatlesâ€™ songs proceed differently from DMâ€™s arrangements. In essence, The Grey Album doesnâ€™t just transform the original songs from both artists into new forms but it also transforms how we listen to Jay-Z and the Beatles. Yet it bespeaks DMâ€™s achievement that you could be wholly ignorant of both pop icons (unlikely as that might be) and still find his CD to be a revelation. Like Lewisâ€™ Mother Natureâ€™s Son, The Grey Album is original in its own right, a bastard son whose style needs no father. (Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Jan or Feb 2004)
Back around 1994, I got a Tascam 4-track recorder and started to make mixtapes. At a later point, I upgraded to a digital multitrack (Roland SP-808) but the sensibility was the same on all the tapes I made from 1994 through 2001: pick a selection of indie and major label singles and try to creatively mix them together.
It finally took until today but I now have all of them online via my Mixcloud account. Here’s a mini-history:
These were all the first ones, when I was both learning how to master the Tascam plus playing with format ideas. Without trying to pat myself on my back…I actually was surprised how well some of these held up. They’re not best-of-class or anything but I still enjoy listening to them and while I might quibble with some song selections now, I liked the ideas I was working with back then, especially in finding subtle ways to make use of the multitrack dimension. Of the batch, Vol. 1 and 2 are my sentimental favorites, just because I was so new to the whole thing.
These marked a transition towards more professionally manufactured mixtapes rather than dubbing them at home, by hand (which is how I used to do them). My design skills were…not memorable. Musically too, I feel like I hit a real stride from Vol. 6 and onward in terms of still liking the vast majority of what I put on there. 9/10 would do again. Also, I’m eternally proud that Head Warmersmade the LP art for DJ Shadow’s Private Press.
I’m not 100% certain but I think these two marked the point at which I had upgraded from the analog Tascam to the digital Roland SP-808. There isn’t a huge difference that most would notice (though I knew because punching in was less obvious with the Roland). Double Flip was particularly ambitious: a two-cassette mix featuring about two hours of music in total. I think my favorite part of that was figuring out the intros to each of the four sides. Auditory Assault marked my transition away from cassettes towards CDs.
There was supposed to be a Vol. 10, an anniversary-style mixtape that would have spanned the ’90s but alas, I was never able to get to that (maybe one daaaaaay).1
Note: what I have above are only those that were part of the O’s Dubs series. I had other mixtapes – Incognitos for example – that I didn’t include in this post. ↩
Just uploaded my latest episode of the Record Wheel; thanks for the positive feedback! I’m serious: I don’t do this stuff to hear myself talk so as long as folks out there enjoy it, I’m happy to do it.
I put up a poll on the Facebook group and folks wanted hip-hop, so that’s what I served up.
I reviewed A Tribe Called Quest’s surprise last album this past week. I also had a few bonus thoughts about it:
First: “The Space Program” is ATCQ’s best lead song since “Steve Biko.”
Best ATCQ lead songs
2. Steve Biko
3. Push It Along
4. Space Program
5. Phony Rappers[1. ATCQ should have opened Beats, Rhymes and Life with â€œThe Pressureâ€ and closed it with either â€œMind Powerâ€ or â€œThe Hop.â€
6. (ironically) Start It Up
Second: â€œThe Donaldâ€ is ATCQâ€™s best closing song since â€œGod Lives Through.â€
Best ATCQ closing songs
1. God Lives Through
2. The Donald
3. Scenario [1. “Scenario” is obviously a classic but I always thought it was a weird song to stick at the end. “Vibes and Stuff” or “Jazz” might have been worked better.
4. Rock Rock Yaâ€™ll
5. Stressed Out
6. Description of a Fool
Third: â€œBlack Spasmodicâ€ is the best â€œPhife rhymes firstâ€ song since â€œBaby Phifeâ€™s Return.”
Best â€œPhife rhymes firstâ€ songs
1. Buggin Out
2. Check the Rhime
4. Baby Phifeâ€™s Return
5. Black Spasmodic
6. Bustaâ€™s Lament