We don’t know about you but we are going through something of a Nina Simone stage at the moment. I mean this woman was simply astounding as a musician, composer and arranger, and as a vocalist of troubling range and passion. I find it difficult to find the necessary words to describe the feeling of hearing Nina Simone in full flow, her deep vibrato quivering like the sound of someone’s very soul in full flight, with all the vacillations of despair and exultation evident in virtually every note. I’m finding it all a little breath-taking at the moment, and trying to fill my relative well of poor knowledge about her recording career with as much content as I can find.
And amongst the rich trove of beautiful music was this cracker of a version of the life-affirming and anthemic “I Got No/I Got Life”. I don’t know where it is recorded, who the brilliant band are, why the colours seem so vibrant and the music so powerful, but it looks as though it may have been the best gig ever. There, i’ve said it. There are rumours that our own soul chanteuse Mary J may be in line to star as Nina Simone in a biopic due in a couple of year’s time. That will fill some of the gaps, but for now, like Highlander, there can be only one. The singularly brilliant Nina Simone. Wonderful.
1982. Hip-hop was still truly in its fledgling years, and in the UK the now familiar path of under-recognition for a generation of artists was still to fully come to pass. Indeed the UK scene had hardly even begun. But at the time there was emerging a distinct flavour to the UK sound that gave every reason to be optimistic for the scene. And chief amongst indicators of this strong UK aesthetic are the unforgettable “Streetsounds” compilations emanating from Streetwave Records, still golden documents for a generation of British B-boys.
The Streetsounds Electro series are records of almost mythic status, thankfully reborn by the internet, and from 1982 to the early 1990s were the records that truly brought electro and hip-hop to the UK shores, thus influencing a generation of artists. Featuring the hottest cuts from the US, the series also gave voice to young UK artists, and as such lit a torch under a scene and a generation which has itself probably gone onto influence every undergoing club scene from Acid House to Jungle, 2-Step to Dubstep.
The story of Streetsounds is one we will tell properly one day on A Story To Tell, but for now let’s go to the mid-decade with 1987;s “Get Buzy” from gone but never forgotten duo Faze 1. US in sound, UK in attitude, an old school classic.
I was reading an article the other days about recording artists who have produced tunes particularly tied to a specific place, or by dint of recorded output or even reputation are somehow synonymous with a destination. In this case the subject was tunes about, or which evoke, London town. Examples vary as wide as the output of two recent girls with attitude, Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen, both of whom can be said to raise shadows of their hometown in much of their work, to The Kinks’ classics such as “Waterloo Sunset”, “Berkeley Mews” or “Shangri La”. Other examples of artists who have used Albion’s capital as a muse might include The Jam for example with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” or “In The City”, The Clash most notably with “London Calling”, or even our perennial British hip-hop favourites such as the London Posse or more recently Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal, and the newer wave of emcees bringing London’s voices to international success. Let’s not forget honourable mention at this stage also to the Pet Shop Boys’ eternally brilliant “West End Girls”, but that’s a different story
But it is a lesser known artist that I wanted to give props to here, one whose dalliance with fame was brief, but whose work can also be regarded as inextricably linked to his own upbringing on the streets of London, particularly his two greatest hits, “Police Officer” and more pertinently “Cockney Translation”. Reggae artist Smiley Culture, who died this week in sad and pretty tragic circumstances, was raised in south London. And yet it is his Jamaican heritage, as with so many black Britons in the post-war years, which led to a melding of West Indian and British culture, and which gave rise to a distinct UK style of reggae toasting, often originating from the inner cities. The immense Steel Pulse were forged in Harmsworth, Birmingham, but the UK reggae scene which gathered strength throughout the 1970s and 1980s was largely a London thing. And in the mid 1980s, Smiley Culture was one of the kings, emerging from the still mighty, mighty Saxon sound system (visitors to Notting Hill Carnival will always recognise Saxon as key stalwarts) and speaking for the black youth of London with his humorous yet often biting and on point social commentaries.
“Police Officer” from 1984 is the more obvious example of a song with a harder comment on police aggression behind its seemingly benign tale of escape from the long arm of the law through reggae fame, while our favourite “Shan A Shan” just bangs. But earlier single “Cockney Translation” also has its deeper points, this time masked by a quite brilliant Rastafarian’s guide to the particular language of the East End of London. Musically it is great, a lilting dub of simple piano notes and echoed drum splashes common to all dub tunes in a way, and lyrically it is just inspired. A trip of nostalgia for all those who grew up in the 1980s, and with a distinct London vibe. But on a deeper level it also served to explore the cultural differences of large groups living side-by-side in the great metropolis, a comment on social integration and migration.
It has been stated as well that it marks the beginning of the adoption of West Indian terminology and accent by large groups of white people, a trend which is seemingly at its peak today. Certainly a ride around the buses of London town will reveal a distinct number of young white kids talking as if they come straight out of Harlesden via Trenchtown, often to almost comical effect. But I digress, because in a way it also marks the continuation of an assimilation of West Indian culture into the British mainstream, particularly in music, which you can trace distinctly through punk, rare groove, acid house, drum and bass, UK garage, grime and beyond. A bit of a garbled account, but hopefully you get the message. And if not, then I can always try it again in Cockney slang, but we may be here a while.
The sad news has filtered through of the passing of West Coast G-Funk legend, Nate Dogg, tragically sad at the age of just 41. He had been battling health complications since a massive stroke over Christmas 2007, and hip-hop and R’n’B have lost a true great. And so let’s just stop for a moment to pay homage to Nate Dogg, as I know it is not just us at Twelve Bar who thinks that the melodious G-Funk chorus-provider extraordinaire is an absolute legend of the musical world – the proclaimed king of hooks, and the sweetest voice on the westside.
As if his work on Death Row with Dre, cousin Snoop, best friend Warren G, and Tupac amongst others was not enough to grant him supreme status amongst hip-hop heads, can we also just take a moment to consider the supergroup 213. Snoop, Warren G and Nate, the Long Beach massive. I know many were unimpressed with their 2004 long-player “The Hard Way”, but come along now people – just the concept itself is enough to make us go wild. Not only, in the world of false unions and forced collaborations, is this a genuine group album made by three friends who honestly seem to have enjoyed the experience, but the album is simply huge, under-rated by many but to us a true monster.
Going back to their roots and staying true to their influences and the very streets that raised them, “The Hard Way” is a classic slice of laid-back G-funk ripe for any summertime. We all love the sound, and we all love the rappers, and most of all we love Nate’s singing. There are too many big Nate Dogg moments to pick out just one. Tributes will be sure to fly in, and our thoughts go out to family and friends at this sad time. The west coast will not be quite the same place again without those honey smooth vocal stylings. Rest well top Dogg.
We love Timothy Zachery Mosley. Who doesn’t love the one man beat monster that is Timbaland? And so we just thought that we would pause, as is our style, to pay tribute to the man and his music. But we’ll do so in a slightly roundabout way. We’ve got a story to tell.
Jay-Z’s documentary release Fade To Black is a brilliant portrait of a master entertainer creating a masterpiece of his trade. The Black Album is truly a classic of its time and seeing how Jay-Z’s works to create the brilliance found on the record is a valuable insight into his creative mind, and also his business acumen. But all of that aside, surely the best bit of the whole film is the segment where he is imploring, almost demanding, Timbaland to come up with a beat for him. It is astonishing to see Timbo crank out beat after beat that many producers, and indeed lyricists, would give their eye teeth for, with a nonchalance that comes from knowing he has plenty more where that came from, and he too is a master craftsman. And then the Dirt Off Your Shoulder beat comes in, and Jay’s eyes light up like a maniac, his brain starts whirring and his rap, a killer tune off the album, is born.
But what is truly amazing about that tune, is towards the end, and the segment when Timbaland starts cutting up and slowing down his own beat. You know the bit, timed at 3.21 when the backing drums suddenly slow down, Jay repeats the line from the opening about being the listener being tuned to the ‘Mo’fun greatest’, the insistent squelchy synth line you have been head-nodding to skitters and stutters, turns around and seems to have an epileptic fit right there on the backing track. It is genius. It is not as if the beats on this tune aren’t already incredible, and then Timbo just messes with it incredibly, making a standard fade out on a track a moment of inspiration.
And that is the point. Timbaland doesn’t seem to do standard. He can truly be named as great because of the change-up that his style has brought to the game, and his pre-eminence as a producer across genres. And his trademark style is so inventive, so commercially viable, and yet so at the forefront of innovation. Timbaland’s work could be a whole chapter of A Story To Tell, by itself and we’d still be here talking this time next year. When I started writing I had intended to talk about “My Love” from Justin Timberlake’s Futuresex/Lovesounds album and then I got waylaid. I was going to talk about how insane that tune’s production is as well as “Cry Me A River”, but that will have to wait. Just like the post on Ginuwine’s “Pony”. Or Missy’s “All In My Grill” or “Get Ur Freak On”. Or Ludacris and “Roll Out”. Or all of Aaliyah’s stuff. In fact this post has gone a little crazy at the end, just like that “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” beat, only not quite as brilliantly!
Fourteen years after his untimely death, Biggie remains a hero of rap to many of us, and Ready To Die a certified, undoubted classic of hip-hop or any other genre. But while the LP marks the emergence of perhaps the greatest rapper of all time, I wanted to take a moment to pay homage to the other central force in this tale of the creation of a masterpiece. Not the Diddy-man, although let’s give credit where it is due to the creativity and commercial sensitivity that Puffy (as was) brought to the project, as well as the talents of Chucky Thompson and The Hitmen production team who helped him mould these elements.
Nor even to cameo beat-making from Lord Finesse and DJ Premier, the latter simply killing it on the aptly titled “Unbelievable”, and the former providing the suitably chilling backdrop to Big’s suicidal endnote. While all of these people are crucial to the album’s success, I think that if anybody is going to be credited with significance aside from the rapper himself it has to be producer Easy Mo Bee. Mo Bee may have only produced 6 out of the 15 full tracks on the album, but the run of tunes (“Things Done Changed” aside) which begin the album are all his, and it is this which arguably sets the tone for Biggie’s greatness.
From “Gimme The Loot”, through “Machine Gun Funk” and “Warning”, to “Ready To Die” Big unleashes the lyrical brilliance and storytelling gift that defines his presence in rap forever more. The mix of street stories, hardcore imagery, humour and amazing sonic picture-painting is never better displayed than here, and I believe is crucial in understanding just why Biggie Smalls became so big and such a well-regarded rapper. The album is brilliant from start to finish. Indeed you could argue that it gets stronger as you progress through it, but that is to miss the point I am making slightly, which is that those four tracks, the mixture of Biggie’s unique vocal tones, never-bettered delivery and lyrical invention, and Mo Bee’s bluesy, understated funk beats, laced with heavy bass and jazz inflections, make the rest of the album possible. They have you believing in everything he says and does from the off, and establish an optimum level of perfection which is never allowed to be dropped throughout. And let’s face it, if there is a greater rap than the one Big’ spits in “Warning” I am yet to hear it.
Two verses of perfection, and as sinister a use of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” as anyone could ever conceive. These tunes are also amongst the first that Biggie dropped for the album, and so show in some ways the emergence of his own confidence in the booth, his own mastery of his vocal techniques, and thus the birth of what is rightly now credited as genius. Mo Bee played no small part in this process, and because of that I for one will be eternally grateful. Ready To Die is far from Mo Bee’s only accomplishment, and props have to go to him also for his full body of work, from early Big Daddy Kane through his Bad Boy production tasks (including the incredible Craig Mack “Flava In Ya Ear” joint), to production of Miles Davis’s last studio recording and recent work with artists such as Alicia Keys.
It is also worth noting that Easy Mo Bee was responsible for pre-Wu desk duties on The Genius’ “Words From The Genius” LP, in my mind a slept on record swallowed up by the monster of what came next for the GZA and his Staten Island lyrical troupe. Let’s not forget that it was also Mo Bee who produced Biggie’s first release “Party & Bullshit”, thus again preparing the world for what was soon to come. However, even that record, and the growing hype around the rapper could not have truly prepared anyone for the long-player that followed. The east coast was back, hip-hop had a new hero, and the music that we love had taken another giant leap forward, with Mo Bee the first to fire a warning.
Those of you who like your beats polished, funky, soulful, imaginative and straight-up fresh will already be a follower of the work of Mark de Clive-Rowe. His Twitter tag of Mashibeats is certainly apt as he takes all of his influences, from jazz to hip-hop, and mashes them into a quite delightful blend of beat-driven futuristic funk. The New Zealand born, globally nurtured, producer, DJ, composer, musician and all round Twelve Bar legend, is an artist it is difficult to define, yet always a pleasure to encounter.
Originally emerging from the so-called Broken Beats or Nu Jazz movements, MdCL has always preferred to use these labels as descriptions of a musical process as opposed to restrictive holes for his music to be pushed into and shaped by. The simple truth is that his music is all about innovation and freedom of expression, all tied together with a symphonic aesthetic that gives the music an expansive breadth and vision, whilst also keeping it tight through trademark snapping syncopation and synth chords of Herbie Hancock-esque vibrancy. Yes there are clear influences in style as well as form but MdCL, like peers such as LA’s own J Davey, King Britt, 4 Hero, Bugz in the Attic, or even Dam Funk to name only a few, are all tied together by their ability to keep one ear on where they have come from, musically, but pushing their creativity forward into new areas of musical exploration.