2010 REVIEW (THE YEAR IN POP)

For the last installment of my 2010 in review series, I chatted with Ann Powers, pop music critic of the LA Times, covering everything from Janelle Monae to Kanye (of course) to American Idol to the sensual charm of Bruno Mars.*

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*For an outro song, I asked Ann what she wanted and she requested “a Bruno Mars medley”. I didn’t have time to pull together a true medley but I did create a hook-only version of “Nothin’ On You.”

INTERVIEWING GURU IN 2003


I wrote a cover story on Gang Starr for URB in 2003, in anticipation for The Ownerz, the group’s first album in five years. I flew out to NYC and interviewed the two men, separately, in Studio B of D&D Studios. People had asked if I wouldn’t mind printing some of it so I went back to my transcripts; unfortunately, much of what I had actually transcribed was specific to the album or my piece. There were long parts of our conversation I taped but didn’t transcribe because I assumed it wasn’t immediately relevant to the story. That includes Guru talking about his father, which I would have liked to hear (maybe I can find the original tape somewhere). However, I culled a few parts that I thought folks might enjoy.

Here is Guru on… Continue reading INTERVIEWING GURU IN 2003

THE MANY SOUNDS OF WHITEFIELD

Poets Of Rhythm: Practice What You Preach
From Practice What You Preach (Daptone, 2006)

Bus People Express: Augusta, Georgia
From Original Raw Soul (Instinct, 1996)

Syrup: Chocolate
From Different Flavours (Compost, 2000)

With all the press that Daptone’s Dap Kings get for their funky soul roots revival (and deservedly so), many seem to forget the groundwork that Jan and Max Weissenfeldt (aka Whitefield) and their band of funky brothers from another mother laid down in the early to mid 1990s. Much of the time they were known as the Poets of Rhythm, but they had more monikers than Prince has had backup bands.

The three tracks above give you a sense of versatility the band has. “Practice What You Preach” is one of my favorite funk workout jams of all time. It features a bassline that rides like a rollercoaster and the syncopated chorus is a real sweat. Then you get a killer sax/drums duet followed up by a nice organ solo. And if you think these guys couldn’t have held their own with the J.B.s, check out their alterego’s tribute to James Brown’s hometown with its frenetic pace and nice touch of congas. Finally, the oft-forgotten Syrup side project finds the band still utilizing more synths. With its steady rhythm guitar riff and still keeping true to their ever-present top-notch hornwork, it could easily blend in with late 70s/early 80s sets.

Recently I had the chance to talk with Jan about his thoughts on the resurgence of funk, where he’s been, and where he’s going with music.

EL: With all the press that The Dap Kings get as being the “in” nu-funk band, people tend to forget you and your bandmates. Talk about some of the groundwork you and your bandmates help to lay with this renaissance of funk in early/mid-90s – struggles to get labels to believe in your music, issues with getting heard, etc.

JW: We self produced and released a 7″ in 1992. I gave a copy to a friend who went to Hamburg and passed it on to the DJ at a small club called Soul Kitchen. Two weeks later I got a call from the guys from the newly founded label Soulciety asking if we want to record an album for them. Of course we agreed as we never even thought that could happen. Before that we just jammed in the basement and had a couple of shows where we covered meters songs.

EL: How many alteregos did the Poets Of Rhythm have? To name a few there was the Bus People Express, The Mighty Continentals, The Pan Atlantics, and The New Process. It’s hard to keep up with your catalog! Why so many?

JW: I lost count myself but the reason is easy to explain: two of our biggest influences in the early days were George Clinton and James Brown. Both gave many of their musicians their own records which had their unique sound but still were part of the whole concept. We just imagined different projects with different sounds or styles and made records for them.

EL: Last we talked, you had mentioned that you were working on a follow-up Whitefield Brothers album to the now-reissued In The Raw LP. Are those sessions finished? Did you stick with the Ethiopian sound you talked about last time?

JW: The album is nearly done. It has some Ethiopian stuff but also compositions based on japanese and turkish scales and all kinds of exotic rhythms. Ethnic or world funk would be good description, I guess.

EL: From your Hotpie & Candy Records days, Poets Of Rhythm really had a lock on that JB’s style with the syncopated rhythms and just a nasty horn section. Then the follow-up Discern/Define went in a different direction, overall a more toned down sound. You really don’t like to stay too much in one musical element, do you?

JW: When we started making music together, Bo Baral and I were only 16 years old so you start with the basic stuff. After a while when more records are bought and you keep studying the works of previous generations, first you look at the classics from the different eras then you start looking behind the icons that everybody knows. You learn there are different approaches to music and there is loads of stuff that got lost because it didn´t meet the current tastes. So you add up and change influences all the time and as we don´t do albums every year the difference in sound can be quite big but still it contains a big part of what we grew up on.

EL: Do you have any desire to start up another label? If so, what would you do differently?

JW: I have a new label I started a couple of years ago – Field Records. So far I only did reissues of Whitefied Brothers and Pan-Atlantics as I don´t really have the time to put too much effort into label work. It´s all 7″s anyways and is more of a fun thing. Hotpie & Candy Records was a fun thing as well. We pressed up own 45s because that´s what our inspirations did. It was never handled as a serious business and in the end we probably gave more copies away for free than we sold.

EL: I read in Waxpoetics that at your live shows you don’t do much (if any) of your older Poets Of Rhythm material. Is that still true?

JW: As I tried to explain with the changing influences, it´s kind of boring to stick to the same formula too long. It´s even harder to keep the music fresh if you have to perform many shows in a row. We try to incorporate as much improvisation as possible so every concert is different and you never know where it´s gonna take you. That keeps it interesting for us and for the audience.

EL: Some in the media have speculated that several years from now that CDs may not exist; they also note that it’s one of the only times in history where the replacement technology is actually of inferior quality. Given the choice of a new album coming out, would you rather get a digital download or own a physical copy? Talk about your thoughts of the digital revolution.

JW: Soundwise digital definitely has a disadvantage compared to analog. They try to tell you you can’t hear the difference and in high resolution that might be true, but I´m sure I can feel it and digital has a cleaner, colder appearance. On the other hand, it freed the music from the industry as the access is almost unlimited. Nowadays you can listen to countless hours of music for free on the web and you can choose what you want to listen to. Just 15 years ago you only could copy music in realtime with decreasing quality. You had to wait till the program on the radio met your taste or you had to buy countless records. On the production side it gives you more freedom as well cause you are not dependent on expensive studio time to do recordings or editing. So summed up it it´s like: more quantity, less quality – more freedom, less money. Like with all things there is the good side and the bad side. Yin and yang will always be relevant.

EL: Are you sour on the music industry these days? I know you had a falling out with Soulciety. Have you had to up your music biz game?

JW: Not sour at all. The only way to do it is to find people who care about music more than money (but still make you some) and work with them. Hard to find.

EL: What other flavors of sound would you like to try? Not necessarily that you’re currently working on, but “someday I’d like to go for a _____________ sound.”

JW: Ambient soundscapes, tone poems.

A WORD WITH SAADIQ

Today, I got the chance to speak with Raphael Saadiq to talk to him about his latest album – the Grammy nominated The Way I See It, his upcoming tour, and some of his influences. OW chimed in with a few questions of his own.

You can get a glimpse of what his tour will sound like with this excellent video/mini concert from AOL Black Voices of Saadiq and band doing songs from his new album as well as a Shalamar medley!

EL: You’ve done a lot to keep the west coast on the map for R&B. You’re from the Bay Area originally (and still live out there) and Cali has had legendary acts such as Sly & the FS and Shalamar. What is the most important thing you felt you’ve contributed for the west coast?

RS: I follow in the footsteps of those who do what they felt, to do what comes from the heart, and keep 100% true to that belief.

EL: Name some of your favorite Bay Area or California soul songs and/or albums. You can include your own, we won’t hate you for it!

RS: Tower of Power’s “Oakland Stroke;” Sly And The Family Stone’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On;” the second Carlos Santana album; Digital Underground’s “Sex Packets;” 2Pac’s “All Eyez One Me:” and Journey’s “Lights”

EL: “Kelly Ray,” the iTunes bonus track, has a very 70s Hi Records sound, especially with the emphatic drum backbeat. The Tony! Tony! Tone! song “Thinking Of You” – it hit me recently how much of a Hi Records sound that record had as well, especially the way you draw out some of the lines and your enunciations – very Al Green-like. What kind of influence does the Hi Records sound have on you making music?

RS: It was played throughout my house growing up.

EL: The bonus song “Seven” that was on the FYE version of The Way I See It – some have said it’s a reference to Michael Vick. Was that the basis for writing the song? Also, the music is quite reminiscent of the Four Tops “Still Water (Love)” – was that a reference point or inspiration as well?

RS: Not so much on the Four Tops. Michael Vick was the basis of “Seven.” Once something is done, you can’t go back. That’s where the line comes in about, “I just want to get my life back,” and back on track. You never know the circumstances behind why people do what they do. We never really know what people are going through and why he smoked before his trial. But the way the media portrayed it…. Sometimes I just base my writing off experiences I see (going on around me).

EL: You worked with some famous musicians on The Way I See It (such as Paul Riser and Jack Ashford from The Funk Brothers). What kinds of talks with them did you have involving the sound you were going for?

RS: Paul worked with Motown since he was 18. Jack Ashford did a lot of the percussion such as the bells. I didn’t have to really say a whole lot to them. Those guys are legends.

OW: I don’t know if you consider your album to be part of the so-called “retro-soul” movement that other groups, like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators are a part of, but I am curious to hear any theories you may have about why the vast majority of retro-soul musicians, songwriters and consumers are all White Americans, Europeans and Australians?

RS: Because they believe in the sound. People have short memories. In America, people tear down the building after they build it; other places, they keep the building up. And in America, people don’t take chances. There aren’t a lot of pubs or band bars for people to play in. That scene is dead. And the overseas, they admire from afar.

OW: And a related question: why do you think more African Americans aren’t involved – either as musicians or consumers – in retro-soul, considering that the music itself is so deeply tapped into this integral moment of Black music history? Do you think it’s more structural – in other words, limitations in distribution and radio play – or more cultural, that is, some have argued that African Americans aren’t nostalgic for this kind of sound the same way it seems like White listeners are.

RS: Black music follows trends. The musicians are trying to feed their families. (And he agreed that African Americans aren’t nostalgic for that sound like White listeners are.)

EL: You’ve got an upcoming headlining tour coming up after doing some dates following the release of TWISI. What kinds of things can we expect to see on the tour? Any tricks in your hat?

RS: There will be a full band with a raw show, raw music, and some of the older stuff as well. No tricks involved.

EVOLVER: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF JOHN LEGEND

John Legend: If You’re Out There

From Evolver (Columbia, 2008)

John Legend: Pride (In The Name Of Love) (cover of U2)
From Evolver (Wal-Mart Exclusive Version) (Columbia, 2008)

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with John Legend about his new album Evolver as well as where he’s been and where he’s going.

EL: It’s great to see a superstar artist in this day and age who is multi-talented. You can write, sing, and play instruments. Why do you think there aren’t more artists that labels can promote as superstars like they have with you?

JL: Every situation is unique. This is a difficult business. Some times it’s the choices that the artist makes. But the labels are chasing what the consumer wants, and that doesn’t always line up with the type of artist who can do all that.

EL: How do you balance artistic expression with both fan and label expectations. For John Legend, where does music meet business and still come out honest?

JL: First and foremost, I have to be proud of the music and make the best music I can. If I’m excited about it, the label is going to be excited about it. I try to think of the fans, because I want them to be pleased, more than thinking about what the label expects of me.

EL: So album #3… Evolver has a more pop, radio-oriented sound. You stated during an interview with Chris Douridas for New Ground last year, “By not sticking to the script for the second album, it allows me to not stick to the script for the third.” Talk about why you decided to present an album such as Evolver as opposed to a more conventional, soul album.

JL: I just want to keep pushing and challenging myself. Making the same album over and over gets boring. The world keeps moving, and I want to keep moving with it.

EL: I think “If You’re Out There” off the new album is a great call to power song and might be more fitting as a theme song to your Show Me Campaign than what “Show Me” is/was. It’s like the 2008 version of “We Are The World” without the oversaturation of artists in the song. Can you talk about your inspiration for this song and how it resonates with the average American’s psyche right now?

JL: It’s perfect for now. I think there is a hunger for change, and you have to inspire people to move. People got out to vote who hadn’t previously. People got involved. But I also hope that people are inspired to get out to work with charities and get informed with decisions that their congressmen are making.

I think that “If You’re Out There” is a more fitting song for the campaign, but “Show Me” was a big inspiration to start it.

EL: What does it mean to you as a person and as an artist to be able to be the opener for a presidential nominee national convention to sing “If You’re Out There”? That’s not an honor bestowed upon many.

JL: I am honored to be a part of history. It was great to back a candidate who I think was the most qualified.

EL: Back to Evolver… The Sunday Times, a UK publication, reviewed Evolver and had the following to say:

“…his contemporary soul, lovely though its melodies are, suggests facility rather than passion, skill instead of instinct…. You suspect Legend aspires to be a modern Stevie or Marvin. He has ended up as the 21st-century Lionel Richie.”

How do you respond to that?

JL: Well it definitely sounds like a diss, but it’s their right to make that assessment. While I’m not as familiar with Lionel’s work as I am with Marvin and Stevie’s, Lionel has written some great material. So while they’re trying to make it sound like a diss, I feel like my work stands on its own.

EL: You’ve written your own songs as well as for others, much like Isaac Hayes. It seems like the singer/songwriter tag has been lost on the black artist when being spoken about by mainstream publications. Do you consider that a disservice to you and other black singer/songwriters?

JL: I don’t see it as a slight. Some times they do label me as a singer/songwriter but not necessarily in the sense of a guy who picks up a guitar and sings folk songs. I think they use it as a genre categorization. So, no, I don’t see it as a slight.

EL: The lost artform: the original movie theme song. The AP wrote a terrific article last year about studios/directors selecting previously recorded material to create their soundtrack as opposed to having artists create new works to set mood throughout the film. You’ve recorded some very beautiful, yet below-the-radar material for the 2007 films Pride and August Rush, both of which you either wrote or co-wrote. Why do you think original songs have become less common? Is a full soundtrack something you’d be interested in doing?

JL: Right now, the market for soundtracks is down so studios don’t want to spend as much money commissioning an artist for original works. Plus, movies sell better when they use a more familiar song during the commercial. It comes down to what the studios want to spend.

A full soundtrack is definitely something I’d be interested in if the right project came along.

EL: You’re one of the few artists that I’ve heard who can seamlessly switch from a full band show to a one-man band show. Some examples include the Knitting Factory live CD and a show from the Jazz Cafe that the BBC broadcast online before the Get Lifted album came out, both of which were just you and a piano. Have you considered releasing an acoustic album of either new material or compiling acoustic versions of previous material such as some of the Live At VH1 sessions?

JL: I definitely want to do it and have had a lot of requests from the fans for an album like that; so look out for that in the future.

EL: You performed a cover of “I Won’t Complain” on Oprah a couple of years ago. Any chance you’ll pull a reverse Sam Cooke and go from pop (back) to some gospel roots?

JL: Anything can happen. I’m comfortable with a lot of styles, and “I Won’t Complain” was a lot of fun to perform.

EL: Is there any album session you wish you could have been a part of as a session writer or musician, oldies or current?

JL: The first thing that comes to mind is the “What’s Going On” album. It’s such a great album.

EL: With all the soul greats essentially dying off year by year (Barry White, Ray Charles, and James Brown a couple of years ago; Isaac Hayes, Norman Whitfield, and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops this year), each having left his indelible mark not only on soul music, but popular music in general, what mark do you hope to leave on popular music and how will you go about approaching it?

JL: I just want to be remembered as a great songwriter and performer. I’d like to be remembered as an artist who made some classic songs. Hopefully I’ll continue to perform for a long time.

EL: Speaking of performing, I’ve seen you live a couple of times – from your Get Lifted tour in 2005 and this past summer at Indy Jazz Fest in addition to your DVD releases. I’ve noticed you’ve gotten more comfortable with being out front dancing and not necessarily being tied to the piano.

JL: I have become more comfortable with being out front. It’s an expression of the music, I think, and the fans come to connect with you. So I want to connect with them. Some of it, too, is that certain songs don’t call for a piano, and so it wouldn’t make sense to just sit there behind a piano on them.

AME A SAMBA

Victor Davies: Sound Of The Samba

From Victor Davies (Compost, 2001)

Curumin: Sambito

From JapanPopShow (Quannum, 2008)

A few years ago I came across this lovely track by Victor Davies called “Sound Of The Samba” from his self-titled album.. Immediately I was taken away with lovely acoustic instrumentation and mellow vocals. As the track progressed I was transported to a summer block party in Rio de Janeiro with jittery drums and jaunty horns. Since then I have been hooked on samba. You just can’t help but feel good and dance… even if other people ARE watching. It’s musical alcohol; inhibitions just disappear.

Quannum’s upcoming release of Curumin’s sophomore effort, “JapanPopShow,” combines the feel good samba along with touches of afrobeat, hip hop, and even reggae. Curumin not only sings in both English and Portuguese (Brazil’s official language) on the album but also handles most of the instrumentation. Labelmates Blackalicious and Lateef The Truth Speaker drop by on “Kyoto,” with Chief Xcel handling the production while Gift Of Gab and Lateef drop their 16 bars. “Caixa Preta” continues with the hip hop beats as the intro drums sound like Neptunes production.

“Sambito” has a very bouncy feel to it. Accompanied by San Francisco skateboard legend Tommy Guerrero on guitar, the song lyrically references the joy of playing along to the music with friends. My personal favorite track on the album is the seductive love ballad “Misterio Stereo.” With its lovely cavaquinho, a small four-stringed guitar, and hypnotic background instrumentation, it’s one of those songs that just sounds sexy even if you can’t understand the Portuguese that Curumin lulls.

Recently I had a chance to talk to Curumin about his influences, his upcoming appearance at the Brooklyn Music Academy, and what samba means to Brazil:

What does samba music mean for you and your country?

Samba it’s a genre of music that I love, as many others. Of course that is genuine Brazilian music, so I understand very well what it expresses, the soul in it. But you know that, as a paulista, and without music lover parents, I grew up listening to pop music on the radio. Just when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my brother showed me Stevie Wonder and then I fell in love with the afro-American music. And just after that I discovered the afro-Brazilian music. Today I listen to a lot samba. To my country samba it’s everything. It’s the Brazilian soul. It’s most important genre of popular Brazilian music. Samba and Baião.

Name your top 5 Brazilian music influences and speak just a short bit on why they have influenced you.

Oh no! This a hard question in these mp3 days! Because I have about 5000 songs walking with me everyday, anytime, and I lose that sense of top 5 or top 10, whatever. And the relation with that idea of influences changes too. I get more influenced by an album than a song. Can I tell you about 5 great albums that I’ve heard a lot in the last week? Check it out:

– artist: Clementina de Jesus

– album: Vai, Clementina, Vai

Clementina is the real samba singer for me. And in this album she sings deep and strong. The band is very simple, almost just percussion and a trombone. Roots.

– band: Cidadão Instigado

– album: Metodo tufo de experiencias

With Fernando Catatau ahead, the band released this excellent album in 2005. Very progressive, creative and provocative. The love songs are killer!

– artist: Buguinha

– album: Vitrola Adubada

Fresh, and one of the best releases of the year here in Brazil. Buguinha, actually, is a great sound engineer, and made this album in original dub style. Dope.

– artist: Iara Rennó

– album: Macunaima

Based in the book Macunaima, by Mario de Andrade, the album mixes beautiful melodies and roots percussion lines.

– artist: Artur Verocai

– album: Artur Verocai

I discovered this album from a reissue by the Ubiquity label. It’s almost impossible to find the original one here in Brazil. The album has this Minas Geras (a state in Brasil, same of Milton Nascimento) flavor. The arrangements are amazing!

There is such a diverse sound on JapanPopShow, even more so than on your debut album. Expand on how you are able to blend the rhythms of reggae, afrobeat, funk, hip hop, and samba and still have it sound so cohesive.

As I said, mp3s have changed my way of listening to music. I mean, I am used to hearing all the rhythms you’ve said walking to work, taking a bus to the cinema, getting my car to travel, etc. I’m the shuffle guy!

And growing up in São Paulo, I always heard different types of music all the time. I’m not a specialist in any kind of style. I just like, more than the others, the afro-American music (remembering that Brasil, Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia, Uruguai, Mexico are all a part of America too). For me, there’s no frontiers between reggae, funk, samba, salsa, afrobeat, candombe, soul, hip-hop.

Describe how the collaboration came about with Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel of Blackalicious. I know you met while they were touring Brazil. Is that how you came to Quannum initially?

Blackalicious came to play here in 2004, I guess, and my co-producer, Gustavo Lenza, was their sound engineer. He gave a copy of “Achados e Perdidos” to the guys and they liked it and wanted to put it out.

In 2005, I guess, they released the album “The Craft” and ask me to make a riddim of a song from the album, and I made “Kyoto.”

We started to play that song with a different beat in the shows and we put it in the new album, JapanPopShow. It was very natural to call Blackalicious to guest in the new version.

Who is on your shortlist to work with on future projects?

Buguinha, the guy I recommended in the top 5 influences question; Tommy Guerrero, that is already a partner in some songs, but now we want to make a record together; the guys from Lifesavas; Kamau, a great rapper here in São Paulo…

Wow! It’s hard to make a shortlist!

You’re slated to perform in December at Red Hot + Rio 2 in Brooklyn. What are you looking forward to the most about that show?

I don’t know. They have asked me to sing two songs and for me it’s hard because I am not a crooner or an entertainer. I always get myself thinking “oh my god! What am I gonna do without a drum!? Where do I go if I can walk trough the stage?” Ha!

Anyway, will be great be with Kassim, João Paraiba, Money Mark, Domenico, Moreno, Ceu, making some music.

What does it mean to you for the Brooklyn Academy Of Music to sponsor the Red Hot + Rio event and put you as one of the artists at the forefront of today’s Brazilian music scene?

Oh! I must show that to my parents, to convince that I’m working; that I’m not a tramp, chilling out and partying everyday! Hahaha!

But there’s so much good music being made down here, that it’s hard to put someone in the forefront. At the same time, it’s always good to feel this good reception.

JapanPopShow is being released digitally on October 7, although you can buy it a week earlier on iTunes and receive an exclusive bonus track, while those who prefer something more tangible won’t see it on shelves until November 4. Regardless of what the calendar says, summer doesn’t have to be over. So crack open the windows, grab a Xingu, and jam along with Curumin and friends at your own neighborhood block party.

Soul Sides + The Sound of Young America

My interview by Jesse Thorn of the podcast/public radio show, The Sound of Young America, is now available. ITunes Podcast subscribers can find it here.

We talk about SSV2 but also other topics such as hip-hop and sampling, the age differences between professors and students and whether Bill Cosby is a real doctor or not. Good times, good times.

Update: Jesse also interviewed none other than Betty Davis. Interview went live today. Check that out.