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.

REWIND: DJ DANGER MOUSE’S “GREY ALBUM” (2004)

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 White 

By Oliver Wang

In late 1968, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis released Mother Nature’s Son, 10 cover songs based on The Beatles’ White Album, itself barely a month old. Bringing together forward-thinking blues producer Marshall Chess (the Chess Records’ scion) and Cadet Records’ 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 (“Mother Nature’s Son”) and funk-tinged groovers (“Cry, Baby, Cry”).

At its best, Mother Nature’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 album’s finest moment comes on “Julia,” as Stepney re-arranges Lennon’s plain, quiet ballad into a exquisite wave of sweeping sentiment punctuated by Lewis’ elegant tinklings. A familiarity with the Beatles’ version certainly doesn’t detract from Lewis’ cover but it’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 Nature’s Son shares an unlikely resonance with a mix-CD 36 years its junior: DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Danger Mouse works with a simple, brilliant premise: he remixes Jay-Z’s recent Black Album by using samples solely from The White Album. It’s a gimmick to be sure, but high concept gimmick as DM brings together Brooklyn’s finest with Liverpool’s Fab 4 like you’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 Wonder’s God’s Stepson and Soul Supreme’s Soulmatic, remixing Nas’ God’s Son and Stillmatic respectively. With The Black Album, at least five mix-CDs have already appeared – note that Jay-Z’s LP is barely two months old – including DM’s Grey Album, Kev Brown’s Brown Album, Kardinal Offishall and Solitair’s Black Jays Album and Prince’s Purple Album (that last one was a joke, but you never know).

Danger Mouse’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 “Revolution 9.” The only time DM uses a truly obvious sample is lifting the familiar melody of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for his remix of “What More Can I Say?” but most of The Grey Album disassembles The White Album into small sonic shreds and builds from there.

For example, for “Dirt Off My Shoulders,” Danger Mouse cuts up Lennon’s croons from “Julia” and stutters it into a beat that would make Timbaland proud. DM’s remix of “99 Problems” tears into “Helter Skelter” and lifts portions from at least three different points to craft a track that rivals Rick Rubin’s raucous original. One of the best remixes is “Justify My Thug,” a song that originally suffered from DJ Quik’s dull, plodding production. DM takes a guitar lick from “Rocky Raccoon” and then overlays a chopped-up stab from “Revolution 1” creating an incredible sounding remake that improves the appreciation for Jay-Z lyrics since you’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 didn’t DM sample “Don’t Pass Me By”, that fool!) or get thrown off when the Beatles’ songs proceed differently from DM’s arrangements. In essence, The Grey Album doesn’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 DM’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 Lewis’ Mother Nature’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)

A REVISIT TO MANU’S VOODOO (AND CRATE DIGGING POST-INTERNET)

A few weeks back, I was interview by The Ringer’s Justin Sayles for an article he just published about the last 20 years of crate-digging and sample-based production since the release of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. It is a sprawling long-form essay that covers a great deal of territory and I suspect it’d be of great interest to many of the readers of this site.

At the essay’s end, Sayles includes this section based around our convo:

Wang says that the internet has been both an “asset and a liability” for the world of crate digging. Yes, it’s had an effect of diluting hyperspecialized knowledge, making years’ worth of collecting accessible to anyone who can get online, but it has also brought together like-minded music aficionados to share knowledge, and has connected people with, for example, a rare LP a collector in the United Arab Emirates is selling.

That last line is specifically referring to an album I last wrote about in 2008: Manu Dibango’s African Voodoo (I re-upped the sound files for it today). I did, indeed, buy the album from a seller in the UAB that I was connected to via the old GEMM.com. For a long time, it was the closest I came to having anything approaching a “come up” story even though, in the grand scheme of things, “finding a record for cheap on the internet isn’t exactly the stuff of legend.1 In any case, what I had forgotten about was what I wrote in that 2008 post:

Why not post this earlier? I actually had planned to at one point but then noticed it had shown up, in full album form, on other blogs. That took the proverbial wind out of the sails, not just because I’ve been beaten from the punch (which I could care less about) but rather, once a $400 record becomes just another download, part of its unique magic dissipates. Under those circumstances, I’d rather post up something more meaningful to me, personally, than “check out this rare record I have” (especially when it’s not so rare once it becomes more mass available). Ah, but such is the reality of music going online.

Again, I wrote that in ’08 and I suspect many folks would have already begun feeling the same way back in ’98. My point here isn’t to rehash the debate but rather to point out that we’re still having it.

Sayles’s article doesn’t arrive at any clear conclusions and that seems exactly right: the internet is still transforming how we accumulate and disseminate both knowledge about music and the music itself. My own site embraces part of the irreconcilability of it all; it’s a digital space inspired by old analog ephemera and the existence of that site might be helping contribute to both/either the scarcity of that ephemera (as collector’s items) or its greater distribution (via comps, reissues, digital releases, etc.) The only thing I can say is that I should have posted African Voodoo earlier than 2008; I was too self-conscious back then and it is a great album and worthy of notice regards of how many other blogs posted about it back then.

  1. With that said, the greatest come up I ever had did, indeed, involve finding a record for cheap on the internet.

SHARON JONES: AN APPRECIATION

My readers know how much I respected Sharon Jones and adored the music her and the Dap-Kings recorded. I can’t say her death last Friday was a shock – we all knew her cancer had come back and was very aggressive – but it felt unbearably cruel in a year where so many musicians we love have left us. NPR asked me to turnaround a quick essay about her and the group’s legacy and while I wrote it faster than I would have ideally liked to, I still hope I did them some justice in it.

Sharon Jones’ Soul Was Surpassed Only By Her Spirit

SONGS I/WE LOVE

I’ve been busy the past month with all kinds of writing assignments and that’s slowed me down from posting here but thought I’d share a few pieces I published since it’s all very much Soul Sides-inspired/related:

Songs We Love: Charles Bradley, ‘Things We Do For Love’
For NPR.org (Mar. 17, 2016)

Songs We Love: Million Dollar Ecstacy, ‘Burning Inside’
For NPR.org (Mar. 31, 2016)

We like it like that: the songs that defined New York City’s boogaloo craze
(Annotated Playlist)
For The Guardian (Apr. 5, 2016)

Songs We Love: J Dilla, ‘F*** The Police
For NPR.org (Apr. 7, 2016)

GET STONED

Do you like Sly? Of course you do.

I put together a 20 song playlist on Sly and the Family Stone’s “essential” records for Rolling Stone’s website.1 Could have probably been twice that.

If I had to pick a favorite song off that list…it’d either be “Rock Dirge” (which is “off-canon” for some folks but f— that. DRUMS) or the so-very-slick-and-fonky “If You Want Me to Stay.”

  1. With research assistance from David Ma. Thanks man!