James Brown – Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year
James Brown – Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year
Today I was sitting listening to my $1 copy of Going Steady reading Steady B’s Wikipedia wondering how he’s serving life without parole for a murder he was only the getaway driver for when I heard a groovy little guitar lick that I recognized from my distant past.
Steady B – Anyway U Want It
It took me way too long to put it together, but eventually it came to me. How could I forget!
The Notorious B.I.G. – Just Playin’ (Dreams)
I think it didn’t come immediately to mind because “Dreams” wasn’t an album cut and back in the day when I was listening to a lot of Biggie I wasn’t venturing too far outside of official album material, even from artists I really loved. Despite this misguided tendency, I still acquired this single on wax at some point, probably as an add-on to save money on shipping for some other eBay record purchase, so it was a song I only heard when I played it out someplace, unlike the hours spent on Ready to Die and Life After Death.
Now you don’t have to be a prodigy-level sample spotter to guess that the original is probably some “Hot Pants“-era James Brown track, and you’d be right, but don’t stop the search there! Dig a little deeper into those memory banks and and recall the man who beat both of these dudes to the “Blues and Pants” flip, and arguably out-raps them as well.
Geto Boys – Scarface
For a bonus, in case you’ve become hypnotized by 12 minutes of the same one-bar loop and are now having withdrawals, check out “Announcement“. The video had me flashing back to the now thoroughly creepy Picture Pages in a big way, and with all the recent discussion of rap ghostwriting I can’t help but wonder if a certain Shawn Carter might have played a role in Pharrell’s verse… and if so, why didn’t Common do us all a favor and follow suit?
Common – Announcement (feat. Pharrell)
“King Heroin” came on the shuffle today and I felt a distinct stirring in my soul that I was sure I’d felt before.
James Brown – King Heroin
Of course Madlib, Dilla, and Knxwledge in their compulsive soul music chopping have processed the original through their respective beatmaking apparatus, but that’s way too easy an explanation and true of almost any James Brown song ever recorded. BJ the Chicago Kid pulled off a much more listen-worthy reinterpretation last year, but if that was it I would have remembered at least because of its recency if not its quality.
BJ the Chicago Kid – Real Love Never Dies
Levert has a boring-ass tribute song called “Tribue Song” that uses the same loop BJ does, is full of embarassing mispronunciations (“Art Blakely”, “Paul Roberson”, “Betsy Smith”), and fails to shout out James Brown in a song about paying tribute to black entertainers of the past, but that is obviously not what I had in mind as I took in the Godfather of Soul’s recitation of some midtown NY deli worker’s addiction poem. What I was looking for wasn’t a direct sample, reference, or interpolation, but more a spiritual successor, some other somber spoken word piece over a mournful 6/8 groove. FInally it dawned on me.
Cee-Lo – Sometimes
I’m not claiming that Cee-Lo was trying to evoke “King Heroin” here, I’m sure he’s heard it and maybe there was some subconscious influence but I think both he and James Brown are just working in the same timeless tradition of talking over music found on pulpits, back porches, strip club stages, and campfires since time immemorial that has only recently been given the designation “rap”. They just both happened upon the a remarkably similar and very effective stylistic vehicle for kicking some major knowledge. It’s a good thing “Sometimes” never got popular or it could have gotten all “Blurred Lines“-ey in Cee-Lo’s world.
It should be noted that both “King Heroin” and “Sometimes” are much better experienced in the contexts of the albums they’re on (even though “King Heroin” was originally conceived as a single and was only later placed on a full-length), on their own I must admit their power is a bit diminished. On …Is The Soul Machine, “Sometimes” it is sandwiched between two of Cee-Lo’s best solo works, and the tragedy of “King Heroin” is all the more potent when you’re just coming off the high of the opening (and title) track of There It Is. Admittedly, jolting into the the rude awakening of “I’m a Greedy Man” afterward feels a bit clumsy at first but if you don’t like sharp juxtapositions of emotional torment and light-hearted innuendo, what are you doing reading a rap blog?
I remember the first time I listened closely to “Thriller” and noticed all the incredible nonverbal utterances Michael Jackson makes between the regular lyrical passages, and how much those utterances affect the mood and potency of the whole experience. The variety and quality of these strange vocalizations is really interesting if you really tune in on them, although I don’t think you’re really supposed to. They operate on a more subconscious level and have just as much affect if you’re paying close attention to them or not consciously noticing them at all. But they really are quite amazing when you focus your attention on them.
Michael Jackson – Thriller
Pop music is full of examples of little nonverbal interjections punctuating traditional lyrics: the “whoas” and “ohs” of countless blues songs, the powerful screeches of James Brown, the early Beatles “Wooooo”. If we observe our own perception of these songs, we find that often these nonverbal noises devoid of all textual meaning are often the most emotionally powerful moments of those songs. Just watch one of those early Beatles concerts and look for when all the girls go the most crazy. Hearing Michael Jackson say “You try to scream/but terror takes the sound before you make it” doesn’t have near as much power as a single high-pitched guttural “GUH” that follows a few lines later.
There is certainly evidence that experiencing language activates more than just the language centers in our brains, that certain sense-oriented brain regions activate when reading or hearing the words of sensually charged ideas in the same way they would activate when in the presence of those actual objects the words refer to. This explains much of the power of poetry, literature, and song lyrics, but not these other vocal sounds that are not as strictly tied in with language. It turns out there is also evidence that this kind of mental activity takes place in response to all sorts of nonverbal stimuli as well, that performing a certain action and watching someone else perform that same action are nearly identical brain processes. It seems that in the case of music, this second phenomenon might actually be just as effective (if not more) than the first. Hearing the sharp, restrained stabs of sound from Michael Jackson’s throat makes us feel almost as restrained, trapped, and powerless as if we were in a situation ourselves where those kinds of sounds were being forced from our own throats. The power transcends language and any kind of textual meaning, yet the impact incredibly effective. Not to say that the textual component should be done away with, I think if Thriller was stripped of its traditional lyrics, it would not be nearly as successful as it is now. But I think it is also true that muting all the “DAs” and “UHs” would possibly just as negatively impact the immersiveness and power of the song. I think the same is also true of the other examples I listed above, imagine “Please, Please, Please” without the heart wrenching screams and shouts that almost outnumber the lyrics of the song, or “She Loves You” without the “Woooo”.
In rap these kind of effects fall under the slightly broader category of “ad-libs” that also include verbal statements but are often newer, more developed versions of these same kinds of effects we’ve heard for decades. Waka Flocka can be credited with the prominence of the ad-lib in rap now, but I think the most effective examples come from another Atlanta rapper.
Rich Gang – Tell ‘Em
I had the same reaction to this song that I did that first time I tuned into the secret power of “Thriller“. Young Thug’s “GAHH” makes me feel more things than most entire rap verses, even his own. I don’t think people talk about these kinds of effects as much as they do lyrics because they’re harder to pin down and rely so heavily on how and when they are delivered that it’s difficult to discuss them without totally losing the power. A lyric can be easily transcribed into text and retain much of its power, but you can see from my attempts at transliteration here that the same process is extremely ineffective for these kinds of expressions. They should be as valued and respected as lyrics are though, because in many cases they have the ability to surpass verbal expressions in weight and emotion, and the skill it takes to dream up and perform these sounds is extremely rare.
After the melancholy news of yesterday, I found myself digging around the internet for juicy Soul Train moments to bask in, and let me just say that there are WAYY too many to count, much less post up here. But I’m gonna spend at least the next few days putting up some of the juiciest of the juicy performances I’ve come across to share with you all. If you don’t already love Soul Train and what it provided for black music in America, then maybe you will in a week or so after some of these videos.
I’m gonna start it off with this incredible James Brown medley from 1974, followed by a pretty beautiful interview with the Funky President himself with a surprising appearance by a 19-year-old Al Sharpton. God this show was amazing.
James Brown – Cold Sweat/Papa’s Bag/Payback/Damn Right I Am Somebody
It’s hard to think of anything cooler than a bunch of elementary school kids in the late ’60s singing a song about James Brown. Try it, it’s really hard. This is really awesome to hear right now, but think about back then! James Brown was just starting to really get into his funky phase, and was hugely popular. Imagine hearing a bunch of inner city 4th graders today singing original songs about Lil’ Wayne or something. Crazy!!
Nancy Dupree – James Brown
props to HQ HipHop for cluing me in to this one