I stayed listening to him during the ups and downs of KMD’s career and while other artists might have hung it up after that group’s unceremonious end at the hands of Electra, Zev Love transformed into MF Doom and created one of the greatest second acts in hip-hop history.
It’s hard to believe that he died so young (except that we’ve so many die too young, least of all this year). RIP to MF Doom. RIP to Subroc. Hope the two of ya’ll are staying a positive kause in a much damaged society, wherever the two of you are now.
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.
However, what makes “Falcon” so memorable isn’t simply the instrumentation. The arrangement here is funky but in what I find to be a very distinct way. There’s songs that fall into a clear “Latin funk” category; take Ricardo Marrero’s “Babalonia” for example. However, “Falcon” isn’t that kind of funk tune; to me, it’s primarily a salsa dura cut that incorporates just enough funky polyrhythms — and that electric piano — to give it this subtle funk foundation while still staying true to its Afro-Cuban roots. The absolute gold standard for funky salsa cuts is Roberta Roena’s epic “Que Se Sepa” but while I don’t think “Falcon” is quite at the same level, it’s definitely in the mix with other top quality funky salsa dura jams like Luis Santi’s sizzling “Los Feligreses” from the ’70s or Peliroja’s 2014 jam “Ciudad de Nadie.” But who were Caffe? Where were they originally from? As Michael notes in his blog, he’s stumped everyone he’s played it for thus far and I’m no closer than he is to solving this particular riddle.
Richard Ryder and the Eighth Wonder: Phase III (Y’Blood, 1972)
This is a very curious 7″ EP I’ve had for years but it wasn’t until earlier today that I was thunderstruck by something about it — and specifically the song “Phase III” — that I should have picked up on a long time ago: the song is intertwined with Amanda Ambrose’s “(I Ain’t Singing No More) Sad Songs”. Fans of my Soul Sides Vol. 1comp (or of The Artifacts) should already be well-familiar with Ambrose’s tune but it wasn’t until today that I even realized that it and “Phase III” had so much in common.
My theory — and this is purely based on circumstantial evidence — is that “Phase III” was the equivalent to a demo version that eventually was turned into “Sad Song” (as it was originally entitled) on Ambrose’s Laughing LP. For one, the Phase III EP was copyrighted in 1972, Ambrose’salbum was copyrighted in ’73. Moreover, “Phase III” is mostly an instrumental, with some similarities in arrangement, but neither song immediately sounds like a cover of the other; had “Phase III” been purely an instrumental, I doubt I ever would have made any connection between the two. But around the 2:40 mark, the main hook of Ambrose’s “Sad Song” is right there. *mind blown emoji*
Backing up a sec…this whole EP is already unusual. It was bankrolled by George Youngblood on his Y’Blood imprint and in case people didn’t know who he was, the back cover conveniently tells us that he was the former defensive back for the Chicago Bears (though he was drafted by the Rams). Y’Blood only put out a handful releases, including singles by both Eighth Wonder (who I assume was some kind of family band) and Richard Ryder and it seems like each of their respective Y’Blood 45s were reissued onto this EP.
However, I don’t know to what extent Ryder or Eighth Wonder had anything to do with the song “Phase III.” On here, writing credit goes to both Youngblood and Don Trotter, the latter of whom, we are told on the cover, was the writer of “Love Land,” a minor hit for the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band in 1970. Trotter is the credited producer for the Phase III EP but notably, his name is not anywhere connected with Ambrose’s “Sad Song.” The credited writers on that song are — and this just blows my mind — Charles Wright, Catherine Rahman and Yusuf Rahman. On Ambrose’s original Laughing LP though, it’s only a “V. Rahman” who’s credited; presumably Yusuf but mis-credited with a “V” instead of “Y.”
Let’s back up even further: Yusuf Rahman was a keyboardist who helped co-write the Watts 103rd St.’s 1969 song “Comment” and he also helped arrange and play onseveral other Watts 103rd St. albums. As such, it seems almost certain that Rahman and Trotter knew one another; at the very least, they would have moved in the same circles. None of this explains the connection between “Phase III” and “Sad Song” however. If it truly was a Trotter composition in 1972, how did he get replaced as the credited writer in 1973 by Rahman? And if “Sad Song” was co-written by Wright, did Wright also have anything to do with the PhaseIII project? As far as I can tell, there’s no formal connection between Wright and Youngblood or Ryder or Eighth Wonder.
I love these little mysteries because something as simple as a song can hint at a larger world of musical communities that aren’t always obvious at first glance but once you scratch the proverbial surface, you begin to see the intersections all criss-crossing around.
We are, of course, living through a moment in which both the threat and presence of death feels suffocating. I’ve always been wary of Soul Sides turning into one long death roll of musicians and artists that I admire because it would feel unrelenting but I also don’t want to ignore all these giants that we seemingly are losing on a daily basis. In the end, we can mourn their passing but also celebrate what will survive them for years to come: the music that made them memorable to begin with.
This isn’t meant to be remotely definitive or comprehensive of everyone we’ve lost…it’s just a nod of respect to some of the artists I’ve long respected, whose work I will continue to cherish.
Manu Dibango (d. March 24, age 86) . For many of us, Manu’s songs were our introduction to Afrofunk. As both an artist and producer, Manu’s influence spanned both a generation and continent. Soul Makossais the biggest release he ever had but I will forever stay enamored with AfricanVoodoo, a library record he put together a few years after Soul Makossa blew up.
Gene Deitch (d. April 16, age 95). I was introduced to animator/illustrator Deitch’s work through vintage issues of The Record Changer, a midcentury record collector’s magazine where Deitch often did the cover art and interior cartoons. The above, from July 1947, was one of several covers that Deitch did that attacked American segregation by pointing out the hypocrisies of how we love Black music but not Black people. In 2013, many of his illustrations were compiled into A Cat On a Hot Thin Groove.
Don Campbell (d. April 23, age 69). Inventor of The Campbellock, Campbell was a giant in contemporary street dance in helping pioneer “locking” which would then find its way incorporated into early b-boy/b-girl styles. Campbell also had a minor hit with the single that celebrated his dance: “Campbell Lock.”
Hamilton Bohannon (d. April 24, age 78). Bohannon was discovered in the early ’70s by Motown and went onto to have a successful disco-era career but for beat heads, we all gravitated to Stop & Go, his and his Detroit band’s debut album on Dakar: a veritable feast of samples that 100% hold up today.
Tony Allen (d. April 30, age 79). Fela Kuti was the name most people saw on Afrobeat albums but the person actually providing the beat? That’d be Allen, easily the most influential percussionist to come out of the Afrobeat movement. He has a deep catalog but start with his debut album with Africa 70, Jealousy.
Steve “Stezo” Williams (d. April 29, age 52). Stezo started off as a dancer with EPMD before branching into becoming a rapper in the late 1980s. He was part of the last wave of early golden era artists for whom rapping and dancing were a mark of distinction. Stezo’s 1989 debut album, Crazy Noise, is a perfect snapshot of rap music of the era and well worth a listen.
Andre Harrell (d. May 7, age 59). Harrell is best known for starting Uptown Records which would absolutely pivotal to shaping R&B and hip-hop at the turn of the ’80s to ’90s. He was an architect of the New Jack Swing sound, help folks like Heavy D. and Mary J. Blige get off the ground and discovered Sean “Puffy” Combs (and by extension, Biggie). He also was the Dr. Jeckyll in the early rap group, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Betty Wright (d. May 10, age 66). This one really strings and not just because it happened this morning. 66 is really young all said and Wright is such an important figure in soul, especially as the premier artist to come out of the vibrant Florida R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to include her rendition of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” above to tip the hat to Withers, who I already wrote about after his passing, but if you’re going to dip your toes into her catalog, start with her debut, My First Time Around, recorded when she was only 14. Just an incredible talent, all around.
This past Monday, I had a two hour set on Dublab. It opened with a short Bill Withers tribute before moving into some “feel good grooves.” In the second hour, I turned things over to my 15 year old, EMW, who programmed and sequenced a set based around stuff she’s been listening to during lockdown. It’s a family affair.