Archive for the ‘Rap’ Category

Is it jazz? Is it hip-hop? Is it rap? “Yes.”

January 23, 2008

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Us3: Hand on the Torch

In 1991, London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson was summoned to EMI Music’s London offices. He had released a 12-inch dance single that was getting a lot of airplay, The Band Played The Boogie. On it, he’d sampled a jazz tune originally released on Blue Note Records, now owned by EMI. Instead of getting sued, he somehow managed to talk his way into Blue Note’s vaunted jazz vaults.

The result for Us3—Wilkinson and production partner Mel Simpson—was the groundbreaking Hand on the Torch, originally released in 1993. The result for Blue Note was its first album ever to hit Platinum [selling one million copies].

The whole idea of teaming with hip-hop and rap artists was a risky one for the venerable jazz label. “It was a brave decision by [Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall,” Wilkinson said, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it.” One of those demos became the first track of the album and my personal favorite, Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia]. It combines heavy samples from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island and a sampled intro from an Art Blakey album with vocals by rapper Rahsaan Kelly and trumpet by Gerard Presencer.

Simpson does all the keyboard work on the album; Wilkinson handles samples and scratches, and the two share programming credits. Other personnel include rappers Kobie Powell and Tukka Yoot, sax players Ed Jones and Mike Smith, trombonist Dennis Rollins, guitarist Tony Remy, pianist Matt Cooper and backing vocalist Marie Harper.

Blue Notes’ vaults provide the talents of the aforementioned Hancock and Blakey as well as Lou Donaldson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Reuben Wilson and Donald Byrd, all jazz luminaries.

What could have been a musical trainwreck is instead a brilliant conversation between two very different music genres. The music video above [thank you, YouTube] of Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia] demonstrates the careful intertwining beautifully. As with many music videos, though, the visuals don’t live up to the music. You’ll probably get more from the music if you close your eyes. Seriously.

Throughout Hand on the Torch, the musicians show a real sensitivity to the jazz samples. They bring some nice surprises to it too. On the cut Eleven Long Years, they actually uncover a reggae-friendly rhythm in Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. The result is electrifying.

Maybe it’s because this album is already nearly 15 years old, but the lyrics show refreshing restraint when it comes to glorifying violence and the gangsta lifestyle. The subjects are there, of course—they’re part of urban life. But tracks like Just Another Brother are typical of their take on the topic; it tells stories that show how whatever circumstances brought someone to violence, the result is always the same—he becomes “just another brother on lock-down.” The bragging and posturing inherent in much of hip-hop and rap is of course there too, but even this is mostly and refreshingly free of misogyny.

There’s also a two-disk import version of The Hand on the Torch; the second disk contains the original jazz tracks that Wilkinson and company sampled. As much as I love jazz, I have to think that hearing them might be like having a magician explain how he does a trick. We always beg to know the secret, but when the magic is explained, we’re always disappointed.

What rap could have been—and still could be.

January 9, 2008

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Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron has been called the godfather of rap. To listen to this album is to understand what rap could be.

Using the spoken word mixed with music, humor, anger and genuine outrage at the status quo, Scott-Heron delivers powerful messages that rail against ignorance and injustice. And no one gets away unscathed, especially in the title track, the best piece on the album. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a call to arms for African-Americans to step up and take part in “looking for a brighter day.” It attacks corrupt, uncaring government, racism, apathy, white liberals and opportunistic African-Americans alike. Most of all, though, it is a brilliantly biting indictment of a shallow, consumer-driven society and the media that both feed it and feed upon it.

Other tracks carry strong messages too. No Knock speaks out against the Nixon-era use of “no-knock” raids on political radicals; Black Panther leader Fred Hampton died in a no-knock raid. Whitey on the Moon questions the financing of this endeavor in light of rampant poverty right here on Earth. And Brother challenges “would-be Black revolutionaries” to stop posturing and start delivering:

Show that man you call an Uncle Tom just where he’s wrong.
Show that woman that you’re a sincere Black man.
All we need to do is see you shut up and be Black.
Help that woman, help that man.
That’s what brothers are for, brother.

All of which brings me back to what rap could be. Yeah, a lot has changed since the 1970s when this music first appeared. But unfortunately, a whole lot is just the same. How many songs do we really need about bling and violence, bitches and hos? With few exceptions, rap music has become like Irish music for me, one long, monotonous song cut up into song-length pieces.

Scott-Heron himself has called on the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic: “There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.”

All this said, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a wildly uneven album. In fact, it’s almost like two completely different albums in one, with more conventional songs outnumbering the uniformly excellent spoken word tracks. A couple of the songs work well too, most notably The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues and Pieces of a Man. But most are earnest, heartfelt, unfortunate exercises in bad 70s poetry.

All that said, though, the title track alone is worth the cost of admission.