Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Double Trouble at the Key Club

Recently talked a bit with Chicago artist ShowYouSuck about live rap and The Roots, while at the same time I had just been reading ?uestlove's Mo Meta Blues. There's an anecdote Quest gives about how when he showed the original beat for "Double Trouble" to D'Angelo, DJ Premier, and Dilla during the Voodoo sessions, he realized by their reaction that they were thoroughly unimpressed. They were being nice about it. But, as Quest puts it: "I took a long look at myself after debuting 'Double Trouble' for the room and realized that if I wanted to be in their fraternity, I had to pull it up a notch."

This is interesting to me because "Double Trouble" has long been my favorite track on Things Fall Apart. The back-and-forth between Black Thought and Mos Def is superb. There is so much momentum built by the frequency with which they trade bars and the variety of the rhythms they use for each new round is astounding. It's one of those songs so stuffed with intricate rhyming that it has almost limitless replay value for me.

I had found this live recording of a performance about a year ago. At first I thought it was from their tour in support of Game Theory (2007?), but you can see Mos is already using his now-ubiquitous red microphone, which I think he introduced well after '07. Anyway, the thing I love most about this performance is the communication you can see between most of the band members, most especially led by Quest as a bandleader. There are a few key moments when Quest speaks into a microphone, which I assume leads to monitors that allow him to communicate with the rest of the band. These short instructions get the band together for accents, stops, and changes in feel. I love watching Quest play music for this reason, because it's clear he is considering the entirety of the song's direction at any given moment. It's the same reason why Mo Meta Blues is such an insightful read.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lee Perry at Black Ark

Learning about the styles and production strategies of the early reggae producers is pretty interesting. Producer Coxsone Dodd, at Studio One, was a major player in the ska years, but then took a breather during rocksteady's heyday. When reggae came into view, he moved to the front of the pack. One of the reasons Dodd became the foremost producer when roots reggae came into its own, according to Lloyd Bradley in This is Reggae Music, was his work ethic at finding new talent and his system of auditioning young singers and songwriters. He also had a killer house band. Part of it also had to do with his production style. At that time, whether he had six or eight tracks to record through, he would double- or triple-track the bass to achieve the fat sound that was expected by listeners at lawn dances in Kingston. 

Lee Perry was another superproducer at around the same time, but differed widely from Dodd in his mannerism and approach to recording. Musicians from that era talk about Perry as a musical genius who knew exactly what he wanted. But his approach, from what I've read (and from what this video makes it out to be) was much less constrained. First of all, he let his musicians smoke the chalice openly (as you can see in the video). Musicians at his Black Ark studio claim that this is what led to so many great, relaxed recording sessions. (Dodd was not a fan; he didn't ban ganja, but his people knew he'd rather not have it at Studio One.) Perry was also a pretty eccentric dude, and something of a packrat. That's why photos and videos of Black Ark are so visually stunning. 

These are just some of the details I remember as I'm nearing the 450-page mark of Bradley's epic history of Jamaica's music. Obviously Perry went on to lead the Upsetters into the world of dub. Listen to his recordings from the early 70s. Also listen to King Tubby. But, for a window onto what life was like at the Black Ark, see below. Just try to disregard the patronizing, ethnographic narration.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bob and Marcia: Young, Gifted, and Black

Jamaican popular music was heavily influenced by American soul and R&B for decades, starting at its very inception with ska in the 1950s. You could argue that the musical transition from ska to rocksteady to reggae to roots reggae mirrored the changes in American black music and consciousness during that same time. As the 60s became the 70s, Jamaican artists were encouraged by the powerful messaging of Black pride in the U.S. This came across in the music. The popular themes of love and loss inherent to rocksteady turned toward Black liberation, as the message from across the Atlantic merged with the increasing prominence of Rastafari philosophy on the island itself. Reggae was beginning to come into its own.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, reggae was actually enjoying the chart success that it could never find in the States. Reggae releases were bought by large swaths of British listeners, especially by the West Indies immigrant community, but also by white youths, members of the skinhead subculture particularly. But since the BBC was still so unwilling to play Jamaican roots records -- explained more or less by racist ethnocentrism and fear of an immigrant takeover in popular culture -- producers would favor cover versions of tunes that were already popular in the UK. They would also dress them up with strings and orchestration to make them sound more Western.

Bob and Marcia's version of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" is a telling example of this trend. The song sounds quite different from the roots reggae that would become popular across the world as the 70s progressed. Tracks like these served as a palatable transition for British listeners and radio executives and helped break open the doors for acts like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Big Youth over the next decade.

Bob and Marcia:

The Gaylads:

Aretha Franklin:

Donny Hathaway:

And Nina Simone, of course:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Byron Lee and Mighty Sparrow: Try A Little Tenderness

Byron Lee was an originator of ska music, though his uptown reputation was contentious in the slum neighborhoods of Kingston. Half Chinese-Jamaican, Lee was recipient of many Chinee-man slurs. But besides his being treated as a racial outsider, he was also considered both musically inauthentic and a bandleader of questionable talent. He took ska just as it was on the up and up, dressed it in a tuxedo, and brought it to the high-class tourist hotels to make some bank.

The ultimate reward for Lee and his desire to bring ska out of the ghetto was an invitation to play at the Jamaica pavilion of the World's Exhibition in New York City in 1964. The folks in Kingston were none too pleased, considering this guy's version of ska was very mannered and polished, nothing like the rootsy and raw stuff they were playing back home. Meanwhile, the set didn't even go over that well (perhaps for that reason), and a bubbling interest in ska never took hold in the States.

Here's Byron Lee, half a decade later, teaming up with calypso king Mighty Sparrow, to cover "Try A Little Tenderness." I think comparing this to the Otis original is not unlike what it would have been like to compare Lee's version of ska to the stuff coming out of Kingston in the early 60s.