Whatever happened to R&B radio?


Remember when there was only one format of R&B radio? Today's there's mainstream R&B, Adult R&B (a/k/a Urban A/C, a/k/a quiet storm plus "jammin' old school," a format pioneered by Chicago's V103, which positioned itself as "your home for hits and dusties" a full decade-plus ago), Rhythmic Top 40 (a/k/a black music for white people - lots of booty-shakin' jams and faux-thuggishness, since that's what most white folks think blacks do, bust nuts and bust shots), Smooth Jazz (a/k/a instrumental black pop plus Anita Baker and Sade, and depending upon your market, Steely Dan and Phil Collins, too)... can you even imagine Anita Baker getting played on a mainstream R&B station these days? (And Quiet Storm shows at night don't count.) Hell, for some of 'em, even Mary J. Blige is nearly pushing it. But is Ciara really anyone's idea of a future core format artist?

Mind you, this is no rant against youth-oriented R&B or hip hop; Ciara's made some cracking singles herself, and there's something about Omarion that just kills me (let's see if he can keep it up; later for Bobby Valentino, who feels like the definition of "one-hit wonder," and possibly the same for the over-touted Chris Brown). But where's the room in the format for grown folks? How did MJB, just in her mid-30s, damned near become the oldest artist R&B radio will play? Prince may get a few curiosity spins, especially with his new "this time, I'm really back" single "Black Sweat," but that's probably the extent of it, and Charlie Wilson and the Isleys wouldn't be getting love from today's youth-focused stations if not for the patronage of a certain Mister Robert Kelly. Jill Scott's initial success, meanwhile, now looks more like a fluke than anything; don't expect to hear her outside of Adult R&B anytime soon.

To cite just one example, you know what followed De La Soul's "Me Myself and I" to #1 R&B back in '89? It was a friggin' Natalie Cole ballad, the gloppy "Miss You Like Crazy." I can't fathom a radio station - at least not a terrestial one - playing both of those hits, let alone back to back. Yes, I understand that radio formats (of all stripes, with the exception of country) have splintered like a sledgehammered woodpile over the past 10-15 years, all in the name of narrowcasting for ad dollars. There aren't any true top 40 stations around these days, either. (Though the format's mainstream variant, with its Matchbox 20-to-Bow Wow segues, comes closer than you might think.) Thinking of what once was likely never again will be saddens me, though.

Exceptions certainly exist. Fantasia may have Jazze Pha- and Rodney Jerkins-helmed club jams on her debut album, but the songs that broke as the hits, big hits, were the sumptuous ballads "Truth Is" and "Free Yourself." If Fantasia's the contempo Patti LaBelle (and she is), I guess that makes Alicia Keys today's Gladys Knight (and not just 'cause she covered "If I Were Your Woman" on her Unplugged). She's beat all the odds to already craft a small library of sounds-like-classics, most notably "If I Ain't Got You," which will endure after we're all dead. It's her "If I Were Your Woman," actually. Neither artist has sold as much as she has based solely on Adult R&B airplay (though it certainly helps - believe that grown folks buy records); you don't go top 5 on the R&B singles chart just by hitting the top of the former - just ask Kem.

Kem's a rarity becoming more common these days: a new artist breaking, fairly exclusively, at Adult R&B. You could argue that the likes of Dwele and Kindred the Family Soul have done the same, but neither of them has sold much, let alone hit #1 on the R&B album chart. Kem has done both, topping the chart with last summer's II. What concerns me is that soul music seems to be getting abandoned to Adult R&B. No, not all of it's good, certainly. But would an Angie Stone get a chance from mainstream R&B today? Her distaff counterpart, Anthony Hamilton, has had to fight for every radio spin he's received (especially since his boss, Jermaine Dupri, seems more concerned with Dem Franchise Boyz these days) - and the slooooow response to his new album's leadoff track, "Can't Let Go," shows that he's still gotta fight for his. Sigh.

Kool & the Gang – "Misled"


One day I'm going to explain, at length, why Kool & The Gang are disgusting.* A funk collective responsible for one of the unfunkiest numbers of all time, despite its totemic value for white people ("Jungle Boogie"); and one of pop music's grisliest anthems ("Celebration," the very mention of which conjurs Sunday afternoons at Planet Hollywood with my parents), they should have by rights started hitting the Econo-Lodge circuit in 1984. Instead, they scored two R&B #1's and an unbelievable three pop Top Ten hits off their Emergency album ("Fresh" ain't as bad as "Cherish" – a sop to the New Edition fanbase complete with harmonies which define "treacle.").

The classic in the bunch – indeed my pick for the best song Kool and his gang ever constructed – is "Misled," another one of those "Beat It" clones in which R&B smoothies put the moves on an Eddie Van Halen wannabe for some discreet post-concert necking (to be fair, the previous year's "Tonight" presaged this blessed union, without "Misled"'s fury). Not quite as lissome as Ray Parker, Jr.'s "The Other Woman," Run DMC's "Can You Rock It Like This?" or Billy Ocean's "Loverboy," the riffage on "Misled" is as heavy as a Chevy, the distorted is-it-a-bass-or-a-synth an added bonus, and James "J.T." Taylor coaxes himself into a fine froth when he and that guitar take turns setting the chorus aflame. All in all, a fine first single...sullied by its followups. Now somebody sample this fucker.

*Andy gives it a go.



As mentioned previously in a comments field, this RPJ treasure was the opening to Pryor's Place, which has the distinction of being the sole Kroft Bros. children's production of the 80s. Guest stars other than our Patron Saint Parker Jr. included Sammy Davis Jr., Pat Morita, Robin Williams, Shirley Hemphill, Rip Taylor, Willie Nelson, Jack Tripper, Lily Tomlin, Tootie, The Fonz and Scatman Crothers. A guest list that could put the fear of god into any impressionable child, indeed.

The show only went on for 13 episodes, but is highly sought after on the collector's market today. Or so I'm told. It's not Electra Woman and DynaGirl, but then again what is these days?

Boogie Fever no. 16-20


Dick Haymes: “You’ll Never Know” [July 17, 1943]
You're shitting us, right? WWII sentimentality can excuse (or at least explain) plenty, but this is the damn near milk-on-toastiest thing I've ever heard--Haymes is like a parody of Bing Crosby that forgets it's a parody about a quarter of the way through, around the time you forget that the record is playing. I cannot imagine any more bleached-white recording ever topped the R&B charts (for a month! a month!), and glancing down the long list I don't think one has unless you skip ahead to 1985 for "We Are the World," which compared to this is a 50-minute Fela jam with special guest Ludacris. A landmark. Ugh. 1

Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra: “Don’t Cry, Baby” [August 14, 1943]
Begins brassy (literally/figuratively), downturns into a croon that's out-understated by a delicate piano solo that still gets a few winks in, then the corny cornet wah we've been waiting for since the thing started. Restate chorus and fanfare out. Generic, which is not an insult. Not a compliment, either, granted. 6

Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: “A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship)” [September 25, 1943]
For all we hear about Ellington being the superlative genius of his field (i.e. all of American music), what's striking about the records included in this survey is how typical of their fellows they are--Duke made pop records, three-minute wonders and made-to-orders, and whatever quirks are in them subside in the face of their basic task, i.e. getting asses in seats and/or on the floor. This one feels lesser to a relative Ellington novice like myself--it's easy to figure it was a number one based on its title phrase and lyric ("Shhh--don't talk too much"), WWII propaganda incarnate. Does it swing? Well, duh. 6

Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: “Sentimental Lady” [October 2, 1943]
This isn't the first all-instrumental no. 1, but it's interesting in that it's the closest to what we might think of today as "pure," non-pop jazz to get there so far. As the title suggests, this is a mellow ballad, the melody voiced nearly totally on the lead instrument (alto sax, played by either Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, or Harry Carney), a melancholy sob that's as close to the jazz ideal as any no. 1 hit from its era or any other. 7

King Cole’s Trio: “All for You” [November 20, 1943]
Cocktail trio has a round, moves carefully through slow number--delicate, precise, endlessly flexible. Vocally, Cole is at the top of his game here--he's a smoothie, sure, but he's also sharp-edged, a lyric salesman who knows how every extra he'd be happy to throw in for free if you buy right now works, a discursive pianist who sticks to and adores the melody. Plus he's got a guitarist who loves the scales he dances around. 8

This is the end of the original run of reviews from the original Boogie Fever blog. Life-stuff (new job, new town, new place hopefully without much pain involved) will take over from here but as soon as I am able I shall attempt to continue the project. Thanks to all of your for your patience.

Kool & the Gang - "Fruitman"


And on that note...

Donuts' eighth track was bugging the hell out of me. Motown references are all of the album, so I speculated that its piano vamps might've been pulled from a version of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." I consulted Rob, who said they could've been from a version of "I Was Made to Love Her" (I might have the titles switched). Like the absent-minded sample snoop I often am, I had been ignoring the exultations of "Fruitman!" throughout the track, and it eventually occurred to me to find out if there are any tracks with the title "Fruitman."

A search in a music database pulled up the second track on Kool & the Gang's Light of Worlds, an album I own. (It's the one with "Summer Madness," Rocky Balboa's favorite mood setter.) I was dumbfounded that I had to do that much thinking and research to confirm the sample, but once I listened to "Fruitman," it became evident why I didn't think of it: it's not very good. It's kind of hokey and it's also sluggish in relation to what Dilla did with it, though I fully endorse its message of eating fruits and vegetables.

And you know what? Beyond placing it over a more pronounced beat and shapeshifting some of the voices, I can't tell you exactly what he did with it. An initial, unfocused comparison left me with the impression that Dilla's track is about twice as fast as the source. Deep concentration revealed little difference in tempo. Perhaps it's all about context; Donuts is ceaselessly kinetic, one idea right after another, whereas Light of Worlds is an album by Kool & the Gang. At any rate, this is yet another case of Dilla flipping an otherwise useless track and making it sound like one of the Great Unused Breaks. I don't think any other producer has gone near it.


Riot on MySpace


Miles Marshall Lewis' book on Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, forthcoming in Continuum's 33 1/3 series (to which I've also contributed) looks like a great one, going by the excerpts in the most recent series sampler. The best part of that excerpt is now available for view on the book's MySpace page, complete with an audio clip of "Thank You For Talkin' to Me Africa."


"One day you'll come home early from work/open up the door and get your feelings hurt" is the best euphemism for "you'll find out that s/he's fucking around on you," EVER. The fact that it's found in a song presented this smoothly - this is the epitome of smooth R&B, for pete's sake just listen to those squishy keyboards - makes it all the more a marvel.

Boogie Fever no. 11-15


Bonnie Davis (with the Bunny Banks Trio): “Don’t Stop Now” [March 6, 1943]
“I’ve got you under my spell/How long, I can’t tell/Way your loving tests me/Sure does affect me/[sucking intake of breath]—don’t stop now.” The chart gets dirty, finally. It’s always hard to tell how accurately a record this old reproduces its vocalists’ voices, and the transfer I have of the song (it’s off DW’s radio show archive) doesn’t help much—as Douglas points out while back-announcing the song, it’s strangely out of print for a song that stayed number one for three weeks—but on the evidence, Bonnie Davis had a kewpie-dollish voice with a hint of bellow in it (dig the way she swoops down and up near the end on the chorus), fairly typical for the time and kind of fetching even now. Bunny Banks takes a nice little solo but his accompanists stay out of the way, and mostly so does he; it’s her show, and her libido’s. 7.5

Ink Spots: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” [March 27, 1943]
Along with the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots tend to be written off by rock historians (and even pop historians) as milquetoast, safe, bland, and they can certainly be heard that way to rock-and-after-trained ears, but this Duke Ellington cover (which Duke himself would hit number one with two months later) has a free-and-easy insouciance it’s hard to imagine anyone hating. Then again, I haven’t heard many Ink Spots songs beyond what I’ve caught in a couple movies (Woody Allen’s Radio Days, prominently), and on old radio shows, including if I’m not mistaken Amos & Andy (oh yeah, I was a big old-time radio fan when I was younger, an offshoot of my comics fandom, though I’ve barely played any in years, including the bunch I ordered from OTR CAT last summer, I’ll go into it another time), and when I got The Best of the Mills Brothers: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection in the mail four years ago I liked precisely the two songs I already knew, so who fucking knows? Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. Still, the fluid lead (either Deek Watson or Charlie Fuqua, not sure which) is at least as persuasive as Nat King Cole’s, and the group harmony on the closing iterations of the title swing slyly and thicken beautifully. 8

Harry James and His Orchestra: “I’ve Heard That Song Before” [April 17, 1943]
Onomatopoeia swing: The lyric is about how the singer has heard that song before, so please play it again, and it’s preceded by a riff that you’ve been hearing all your life even if you’ve never encountered it prior to the first time you hear the record. Non-onomatopoeia swing: Harry James then follows said plea by not reiterating the bompa-bompa-bom! riff he started the song with! It’s the kind of riff that announces itself as classic the first time you hear it if you’re a real cornball, and James juices it for every kernel. 7

Ink Spots: “I Can’t Stand Losing You” [April 24, 1943]
Different lead singer--this time it’s Bill Kenny, and lord does it show. This is what historians are talking about when they fleck the Spots with accusations of mimsiness, accusations that stick--Kenny is so fussy he’d embarrass Queen Victoria. But then! Suddenly! Well, OK, in the exact same place he did it on most of their other songs, but still--ladies and gentlemen, bass singer Hoppy Jones steps in and gives his recitation. This is the kind of thing that Spike Jones was making fun of in his version of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” but what’s great about H. Jones is that even if he can’t save the song--and he can’t, here--he sounds so plainly country (not meaning -and-western) that he makes the song take on dimensions larger than that of the fancy tablecloth Kenny makes it into. Hoppy and Hoppy alone is why I didn't give this a 3. 5

Duke Ellington: "Don't Get Around Much Anymore (Never No Lament)" (May 29, 1943)
Throwing some new words on an old tune (this was originally recorded in 1940) and watching it go to the top of the charts evidently suited Duke fine, because he went and reissued the original himself with the new title (and the old one in parentheses). Motherfucker was suave, and so is the record, from the sidle-up-and-order-you-a-drink sax to Ellington's own (or maybe Strayhorn's?) piano calling the thing into being with such irresistible jaunt you wanna order whatever tipple he's got. First minute and a half is better than the second minute and a half; the arrangement evens out some, even after the piano re-enters, but you won't mind it a bit. 8

Boogie Fever no. 7-10


Bea Booze: "See See Rider Blues" [January 16, 1943]
I don't suppose when the singer was in her prime that she was advertised as "The Temptress Whose Name Looks Like a Typo," but she could have been--when I started bearing down on the songs for this project, I'd assumed it was one, but lo, there she is on AMG as "Beatrice Booze." (A pseudonym, obviously, but so was "Rick James," so um yay. I have no idea whether she was a temptress, either, for that matter.) No bio, though, and almost no discography--she was a singer with Andy Kirk's band, which would make him the first repeat winner of the then-Harlem Hit Parade top-dog sweepstakes. That's the most notable thing about this pleasant number; Booze isn't much of a presence, the backing isn't, either, and at this point the title trope probably has more value for historians than actual listeners. 6

Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five: “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)” [January 23, 1943]
Our second repeat winner . . . if you count the fact that the last song was sung by Bea Booze and that this song is about booze. (Rimshot!) (Sorry.)

This was Louis Jordan's first number one single; it occupied the spot for a single week. Before the end of 1950, there would be 17 more that, together, would top the R&B charts for, deep breath, 106 weeks. (And that's just the number ones. Indeed, the B-side of "Sober," "The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Tall," went to number 10.) There's a simple reason for this: Almost nobody--black or white, pop or blues, jazz or hillbilly, old or young, male or female--grasped basic recordmaking--intro, hooks, tempo, delivery, solo placement, sound effects, call-and-response, the works--better than Jordan in the '40s. (Please note the ambiguity of that sentence's phrasing. I actually meant that almost nobody in the '40s was as good at it as Jordan, but there are lots of times I don't think anyone has ever done it better, seriously.) Last year, after feeling a bit burned by a 2CD MCA anthology whose programming sounded lumpy to me when I tried to play it whole, I decided to just pick up the 20-song best-of the label had issued in 1975 to go along with my 18-song Original Decca Recordings Vol. 2. Instead, I walked out of the Union Square Virgin Megastore with Jivin' with Jordan, a 4CD box on the great British reissue label Proper. I rationalized my decision by telling myself I'd make myself a CD-R of the 20-tracker from it if I wasn't satisfied. Once home, I opened it up and put in disc one--I figured I'd just stop listening as soon as I got bored--something that, for four straight discs, didn't happen once.

This is in large part because Jordan was, no two ways about it, funny. "What's the Use of Gettin' Sober" starts out as a barely post-vaudeville (hell, barely post-minstrelsy, if David Wondrich's amazing Stomp and Swerve is accurate) spoken back-and-forth between husky-voiced Jordan and . . . someone (one of the Tympani Five, obviously, but the notes of the box don't say whom) answering Jordan's bullying ("Stop drinking so much . . . shut up, boy") in full-on high-scratchy-clowning voice ("Y-y-yes, pappy!"), but he disappears after the first refrain--after Jordan turns to the lyric and starts singing about himself. After a relatively straight verse and refrain, he turns the comedy back on, slyer this time--you can practically hear him smacking his lips on the lines, "I got me a pint 'bout half past four/Felt so good I went out and got me some more," and the way he slightly slurs the whole thing (along with Eddie Roane's trumpet comping) gives it a perfect closing-time feel. 8

King Cole Trio: “That Ain’t Right” [January 30, 1943]
Partly because of his daughter's posthumous ministrations and partly because of television, which made him even more popular than his records already had (which was plenty--without double-checking it seems safe to say Cole was the most popular black performer of the '40s after Louises Armstrong and Jordan), and which kept him in late-night advertisement rotation well into the '80s (the first I heard of Cole was through spots for 1-800-number comps), not to mention his being the semi-official Voice of Christmas and all (who wasn't Bing, I mean), Cole is the best-remembered black musician of his era--by which I mean both the one whose work is best known into the present day and whose work has been the least transformed into a caricature. That's mostly his '50s stuff, though, when he really was, for the most part, as creamy-smooth and dreamily romantic as the late-night ads remind us. His '40s stuff was different. He was primarily a pianist who became a singer, rather than a vocalist who tickled the ivories, as he was later known for; and though he could jump, even then his touch was more sexily light than rock-you-all-night-long driving. He was an urbane blues singer, not a shouter, not even really a hollerer--a crooner who could turn on the raw edge in his voice at will. On "That Ain't Right," he works some rasp into his pleas, but he never sounds hoarse. He's in control. If anything, on this song he sounds like a parlor-friendlier predecessor of Chuck Berry; compare the way Cole enunciates the opening "Baby, baby, baby/What is the matter with you?" or the long A he uses on the line "Taking all my money, having yourself a ball." He's a bit mannered, which is part of the charm. 7

Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra: “Apollo Jump” [February 13, 1943]
Kind of drags for a "jump," but it's busy enough for the Apollo, I suppose. Nice enough head/riff, though I suspect more was made of it when it was played out and/or quoted by others (or by Millinder's men themselves) in other contexts. Pay close attention and the structure builds and builds in a nice way, but sometimes an instrumental's just an instrumental. 6


Please note: The original configuration of Boogie Fever was that it, not unlike B&F, was a semi-group blog. This entry was the only one not written by me; it was penned by the great Douglas Wolk.

Bing Crosby: "White Christmas" [December 19, 1942]
"The sun is shining/The grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/I've never seen such a day/In Beverly Hills, L.A."--I think this tops the list of verses of very famous songs that nobody has ever heard, even beyond the third and fourth verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner." That's the way "White Christmas" starts as written, and it gives the song a little bit of context. Bing Crosby, though, has no use for context. This is the most secular Christmas song that bothers to mention the holiday at all: the sentiment is nothing but longing for snow. (Currently in a town with an untoward wind-chill of 2 degrees Fahrenheit that's expecting "snow and freezing rain" tomorrow, I can tell you: it's not that special.) But this was the biggest-selling single of all time until "Candle in the Wind"; it topped the Harlem Hit Parade despite being in the running for the whitest song ever. (See, specifically, the moment when the Ken Darby Singers stop going mm-mm-mm and start singing the verse as formally and blankly as it is possible to sing.) It's also an object lesson in the frailty of mechanical reproduction: the Bingle and the Darbies and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra were called back to the studio five years later to record it again, exactly the same way; depending on which story you believe, it's either because recording technology had gotten much fancier over that time (the "Don't Stand So Close To Me '86" effect) or because the master recording had worn out from overuse.

In the '42 recording--I have no use for the context of the '47 one--Bing's singing is as calculated as phrasing gets: hear how he aspirates the "wh" in "white," or the cod-operatic three-note "I" in "I used to know," or the breath he takes between "Chris" and "tmases" at the very end. He's so invested in sounding avuncular and soothing that he dispenses with the meaning of the song altogether--there's not a hint of longing for faraway coziness until the middle of the Darbies' verse, when he pulls off his one great trick of the song, whistling along with the recording. He's not playing to the microphone; he's just doodling with the melody, to himself, and just happens to be by the mic at the time, thinking about what's up North. And then the whistling drifts away, and he wanders back to the microphone for the final line's plea for whiteness for everyone else, and he's Mr. Slick again. If nobody but enthusiasts had heard this since then, it'd be a darling little novelty. As it is, it's a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup we will all be dosed with every winter forever, whether or not we like it. 3

Boogie Fever no. 5


Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra: "When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World)" [November 28, 1942]
The clickle-clackle piano at the beginning sounds like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, for fuck's sake! Loop it, add a synth wash or four and you'd have a Moby B-side-cum-chill-out-comp track. Then the woodwinds and horns come in after eight bars and we're back in some '40s B&W weepie in which the complicated-haired starlet looks dejectedly down while fake tropical background stays stock (hah!) still and cigarette smoke wafts in from every conceivable angle (or maybe I made that part up). That's what Trevor Bacon's vocal sounds like--functional and nostalgic. (Also, "Trevor Bacon" is the greatest name ever, damn near.) Actually, the review of a Millinder comp on jazzdigger.com put it best: "Trevor Bacon, while not much of a singer is yet quite endearing." That's the record, too. Bacon is really maudlin, but he's also into it, so you sort of dig on that aspect of it. Probably more so back then--WWII context ahoy--but it carries over to now surprisingly well. 8
[Special thanks to Peter Shapiro]

May God Love Dilla as Much as We Did


I had my own ode to Dilla somewhat wrapped up and ready to post, but then I got this in my inbox and promptly trashed mine. I think my friend and fellow music lover's assessment of Jay Dee sums it up better than I possibly ever could have. Normal posting will resume shortly, no doubt.

Thanks for reading


Jay Dee, a fan’s memoir
By Sam Valenti

Jay Dee died today, for real, he died. While I can’t take the privilege of calling James Yancey a friend, I can say that I’ve met the man.

Dilla was an original, a Detroit original, whose lack of pomp belied his monumental ability. His persona was classic Detroit: a hard-working, humble machinist, whose pride lied in his craft. And with this craft of music making, Dilla displayed an impossible natural gift. As a native son of the haunted city, his was a knowing style, a deadly cool worthy of a Donald Goines novel. He created a new language of production, and in the process invented Detroit Hip-Hop, free from the trappings of marketing or image. In a silent way, he changed music, without having to proclaim its change, as genius moves stealthily.

Trying to explain the importance of Dilla to the uninitiated isn’t an easy task, as there is no one song that summarizes the prodigious talents of the man; nor is there a definitive album that shows the breadth of his abilities. Even his solo albums aren’t proper albums; more like mix tapes chronicling Jay’s moment in time and method. Instead of a hits-centric focus, his appeal lied in the over-arching character of his work, which if needs to be distilled into words, relied on the excitement of a breathless wait; a staggered pause in the music that triggered that great human feeling of uncertainty.

If the best artists make it look easy, Dilla’s repetitious sound and unresolved phrases created the tension that the drum machine has lost it’s internal clock; that HAL has lost its cold reason. The inevitable (and very pleasurable) release is in our understanding, and Jay’s assurance, that the music sounds better for it.


The music of Jay Dee is smooth without the affect of Smooth, it doesn’t believe that any instrument or chord progression defines cool, that it’s instead all in the placement of the notes, or rather, from the oft used Miles quote, what’s between them. His music is a confident hustler that gets there without haste. It never runs. Even in his breakout production, the Pharcyde’s “Runnin”, Jay simulates the momentum of its title out of shuffling his hi-hats beneath a busted Stan Getz sample, using the timing of its placement, as opposed of theatrics or volume, to create its energy. For the Hip-Hop producer people credit with creating the “rushed snare” sound (or the ill placement of the 2 and 4 beats to create an unsteady but syncopated groove), the man never rushes.

Like his music, which you could guess was his personality more than anything he could give you in the flesh, the man himself (gathered from my brief personal experience and what we see in photos) was all Cheshire cat grins and earnest positivity. Luckily for him, as he well knew, it didn’t matter what he said; his beats did the bragging. His career was an increasingly rare and successful example of letting the art do the talking.

I first met Dilla at the local Detroit store, Record Time. I recognized him from a local paper and approached him with my gushing teenage admiration in plain view. It was met with that soon to be iconic big and cool smile, plus his assurance that this fan’s zeal, and the growing accolades of other outward followers, helped to fuel his work. I would soon see Dilla again trying out samplers at Guitar Center. Then again as a freshman in college, watching him open with Slum Village for a band in Ann Arbor. Each time, that same smile, that comfortable pound/hug. The shy genius assured me (nobody) that it was “all good.” Dilla, in the delusional minds of his growing local fan public, was definitely one of us. A Southeast Michigan basement dreamer, immersed in the same music nerd stuff we were. The only difference was that he was a genius, cut from the cloth of rare and great music royalty before him. His too-short life, even without the illustration of any personal details, resembles those of legendary but uncelebrated jazzmen. An ever-moving quiet fire, free of bluff and bluster, but when engaged with his instrument, a force of nature.

My accidental stalking of Jay Dee started after being given a tape by legendary Detroit DJ and Dilla associate, House Shoes, almost ten years ago. Xeroxed by the band and muddy-imaged was “Slum Village” and “Fantastic” alongside a non-descript photo. Its sensibility was Don’t Give a Fuck; its rhythms, as loping as a broken dog’s gait. The rhymes sat back on the beats, the subject was local fare: girls, parties, smoke, rap. But this tape was different as the story always goes. Arguably as original as any debut, Wu-Tang, Nas and the others included, as the music suggested a new approach to Hip-Hop, but like Dilla himself, its laid-back genius does not command respect, it quietly apprehends you like a calm phenomenon.

The vitality of the album, or the level of insouciance in both rhythm and lyrical content, superseded any perceived lack of production value. The drum machine’s count-off clicks (which a producer can easily turn on or off) that open the tape are the telling sign that everything wrong with the tape was indeed intentional, that you are in a master’s hands.

I didn’t know the role that this music would play in my life. I didn’t know at the time that that this man had already soundtracked my summer as a 15 year old 2 years prior, with a great nostalgic single under the moniker “1st Down”. And I also didn’t know then that a few years later, that tape would still be playing in my first college apartment. My girlfriend that summer would insist that any making out would be to a solid rotation of the Slum Village album. In fact, I knew there would generally be no movement unless Jay Dee was setting the tone. It’s enough to give any young man a complex. I consented, and the music would be etched in my brain forever.

5 years later, and after many more successful productions and collaborations for one J Dilla, we met again, but for real this time. After a journalist friend (an even more vocal Dilla devotee than myself) had chosen to interview Jay for a car magazine, he returned with a cassette tape of the session. On it, he had asked if he was aware of an artist named Dabrye on my label, whose record had recently come out and beared nuances inspired by Dilla’s perfectly flawed sense of timing. On the tape Dilla pauses, you can hear him ruminate. I remember listening, my heart pounding. Then you can almost see that smile through the speaker, his off-record vocal trademark “yyyeeeaaahhh” (low and raising in octave, not Lil Jon’s high pitched gravel pit) lets me know that he knows this record, and better yet, he likes it. The results of this finding would later find Dabrye and myself at Dilla’s basement studio, playing our host and one of his MC partners-in-crime, Phat Kat, a CD of Tadd’s beats. This began what would be a collaboration between the three musicians and a high point of my musical memories to date. For Tadd, to be validated and encouraged by a musical hero created an undeniable feeling of arrival.

And inside the laboratory, Dilla was just who he was in the record store, and at the instrument shop, and at the concert. There was no mythmaking, no shadows thrown. Just one musician embracing another, a furthering of their respective paths. Jay was too busy making music to mythologize himself, so busy that he would soon after suffer kidney failure as a result of not looking after his diet in the throws of his life’s work. An artist cast from the great (Mid-) Western mold, created too devoted to even take care of himself.


No music fan I know ever spent time speculating the secret life and history of Jay Dee. His health became the only gossip, and even in that period, bad behavior or decadent living on Jay’s part wasn’t assumed. The tone was more of concern than of curtain pulling. His mythology was unintentional by all accounts. His beats exuded all the charm and life that was in him, but other than those rare and precious documents, he wasn’t there. Even his inclusion in the famed A Tribe Called Quest production unit, The Ummah, was uncertain in some circles. So he laid low in the press (I’m not sure if by choice) even after famed collaborations with artists like D’Angelo and a Gold record for Common. In an era of music journalism where the back-story was becoming the only story, even amongst Jay’s Detroit brethren (“are they or are they not brother and sister?”), Jay’s beats were the story.

Jay Dee eschewed the image of the Hip-Hop Super Producer, and in doing that, he allowed himself the ability to make music that pushed convention without commercial fear. His music challenged fans in a silent way, with coded rhythmic intricacy and as Hip-Hop free of unnecessary decoration and adornment.

A travesty perhaps less noticeable as his underappreciaton as a popular beatsmith, was his dismissal as an MC, both in the eyes of critics and rap fans. Because Jay’s name was associated with the growing independent Hip-Hop scene (home to artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli), he was expected to deliver a verbal message. Dilla didn’t. His message was the joy of making music, free of acting career and fan club, and his rhymes had the same devil-may-care attitude of his beats. In there is the sensibility of a Hip-Hop that had been lost amongst the poles of Puffy’s base materialism and the growing legion of overreaching thesaurus MC’s. Jay’s Hip-Hop was pure regional attitude and charm without the veneer of a premeditated throwback. It seemed that Jay was not a conscious revisionist of a bygone era, but an artist who understood that the innate joy of rap lies not in the overt message or story, but in its cool bravado; its quiet danger.

The same can be said for his beats. In interviews he posed a playful challenge for sample trainspotters and rival producers: Catch Me If You Can. And while most producers trying to throw others off the scent would just dig deeper in the crates, Jay reveled in digging right from the surface and dislocating popular fragments in a way that was never imagined before, even replaying them on live instruments. In an era where the sampler was starting to lose out to the synthesizer as the tool of choice, he breathed life into the key functional element of the culture.

Steadily climbing into national underground consciousness and getting shouted out by Pharrell on BET, Dilla was looking poised for his moment. The concerned chatter continued. Is he dead? Is he dying? Dilla re-emerged, noticeably heavier, on the cover of URB magazine and now had a similarly minded partner-in-crime, Madlib, whose sample-heavy style rivaled Dilla’s for smoked-out energy, but whose character and charm were markedly different. Jay broke the silence of his illness in his usual open fashion. Over a year later, photos circulated on the web of Dilla in concert, performing from the confines a wheelchair. These weren’t publicity stunts; they were, as we now know, the last images of an artist putting it all out there, regardless of his health, and free of a tough guy’s fear of perceived weakness. A classic Hip-Hop custom he apparently didn’t inherit. The confidence is astounding.

It is sadly fitting that the unintentionally shadowy character that is Jay Dee leaves us just as he was poised to break, and just as Detroit as a city isn’t serving for once as the punch line of a Nation’s collective joke. Slipping out of the light, Jay seems to have exited as quietly and coolly as he came onto the scene. But the news of his passing wasn’t quiet; it was a wildfire of grieving on message boards that far exceeded Jay’s level of public notoriety. We had lost a modern musical legend, well before his time to be celebrated as one. Everyone asked if it was true.

As it stands, there will be no breakthrough platinum record, no Source cover, no Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The Quiet Revolution Will Not Be…

The height of Jay Dee’s popular success is fixed, even if his underground legend spikes. This is the sad truth, unless of course his family steps in to shop his vault of beats, following in the posthumous model of other fallen legends. Perhaps a now-aware Jay-Z will pick up a batch of Jay’s tracks to help launch a new artist on Def Jam. There’s still the chance that one or more remaining Dilla beats finds its way into the light. Perhaps James Yancey will be better known in death than in life.

Whether or not this happens, there will always be the spectre of Jay Dee. The spirit of him. A vestige of that most loveable but unloved character, the quiet musician. All cool passion and silent belief, quietly burning on the inside. The music of this man, wistful and rattling like the city itself, will still be haunting Detroit, the Midwest, and the World like a fractured memory, persisting through time like an unfinished but perfect promise.

Genius moves stealthily. Watch for it.




Michael Henderson - "Treat Me Like a Man" (Buddha 1976)
Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio - "Until the Morning Comes" (Arista 1980)

Michael Henderson was all over the R&B chart throughout late 1975 and 1976 -- you just had to squint to see his name. "Valentine Love" (a duet with Jean Carne), "We Both Need Each Other" (a duet with Phyllis Hyman), and "You Are My Starship" (an ambient-soul ballad with much interstellar brilliance) are all crucial contributions Henderson made to Norman Connors' Saturday Night Special and You Are My Starship. He wrote these songs, he sang on them and, just like that, transformed from a dynamite touring and session bassist -- for Stevie, Aretha, and Jack Johnson-through-Agharta/Pangaea Miles -- to a master balladeer. His dominant presence on the Connors albums led to his own deal with Buddah. Solid, his solo debut, isn't as tight as the albums that would follow, like Goin' Places or In the Night-Time, but its "Be My Girl" started a succession of solo singles that charted through 1983.

One of Solid's best cuts remains the non-single "Treat Me Like a Man" [right click/save as], one of the songs he leant to the Dramatics. The Dramatics' version is brighter, with more of a lilt; Henderson's version would've been central on a steamy loverman album in the vein of I Want You, albeit one with darker undercurrents. The song plays out like a movement (or moodment), unwinding in a fashion that seems both improvised and scrupulously mapped-out. Henderson's hurt, a little more than upset, and that's about all that can be put together from the fragmented lyrics. The lines that spring immediately to mind are "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me," "I put a hold on your check," and "Let me turn you every way but loose." Henderson's voice, versatile enough to switch suddenly between a sickly-sweet falsetto and a primal growl, remains in a vaguely wounded crooning mode. There's no flash in his bass -- the steady piano, the shadowy streaks of organ, and the nearly-piercing guitar are more prominent.

Ray Parker Jr., who is just below Minnie Riperton on the top-ten list of R&B artists whose careers have been overshadowed by one misrepresentative song, was also a touring and session pro before going solo. "The guy who did 'Ghostbusters' – haha," you say. Well, the guy who did "Ghostbusters" also did some guitar on Stevie's Talking Book, Marvin's I Want You, and another one of my all-time hero's Musical Massage. (Parker can also be heard on Goin' Places; he and Henderson go back to the early '60s Detroit scene.) The four albums as/with Raydio are either good or great, especially if your soul and funk don't always have to be gritty and hard.

"Until the Morning Comes" [right click/save as] is somewhere between the simple pop-soul of "Jack and Jill" and "You Can’t Change That" -- or "Mr. Telephone Man," which Parker really should've recorded and released officially before giving it to New Edition -- and the loose funk of "Is This a Love Thing" and "It's Time to Party Now." It's upbeat sophisti-funk, with Parker and company doing their best to flatter a woman, "the main attraction of the night." The many layers, up to and including all the percussion accoutrements, are liquid. The song is placed between Billy Ocean's "Nights" and George Benson's "Love X Love" (Rod Temperton again) on this old 84mb thing that Sam accurately termed "hot flash."

Availability: Henderson's first several albums were reissued through The Right Stuff in the mid '90s. They've since gone out of print. "Treat Me Like a Man" is not on any of the irritatingly inadequate MH anthologies I've seen. The four Raydio albums came out in Japan in the early-to-mid '90s. They're out of print as well. (The first couple Raydio albums on CD routinely hit $100-200 on eBay, while the last two tend to go for $20-$30.) I don’t believe "Until the Morning Comes" has been included on any of numerous RPJ comps (including at least two that have "Ghostbusters" in the title), all of which contain "Ghostbusters."

The Harmonettes - "Shame, Shame, Shame"


The recent Numero Group compilation Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up is pretty fantastic, the kind of thing most dug-from-the-crates collections miss, rarities worth knowing and in some cases treasuring. The songs on it are all from Belize, in South America, and they alternate between and combine R&B, calypso, funk, and reggae; all titles are ’70s vintage. The one that gets me, though, is the Harmonettes’ cover version of Shirley (and Company)’s 1975 hit “Shame, Shame, Shame,” which joins a unique pop-historical list of stuff that gets everything wrong but, as a result, gets everything right. (Others: Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, an attempt, Dylan has said, to sound capture a sound like Gordon Lightfoot’s; Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” David Byrne’s attempt to writing an Alice Cooper song; Prince’s “Forever in My Life,” from Sign ‘O’ the Times, in which the singer mistimed his backing-vocal overdubs and liked the results so much he kept them.)

Shirley (and Company)’s original is one of the most striking records of its time, in part because the groove is so irresistible--a chugging, funkified Bo Diddley beat that, at 1:14, at the top of the second chorus, reemphasizes itself when the drummer says fuck it to the tintinnabulating eighth notes he’s playing on the hi-hat and leans on the in-and-out figure that typifies its genre. (Hearing the song go from funky R&B to full-on disco is still a revelation, like watching an apple fall on Newton’s head; even if it’s a recreation, that’s still an Apple and it still hit Newton in the head.) The other thing that’s fascinating about S&C’s “SSS” is that the production is horrible--muddy, ad hoc, weirdly balanced (Jesus Alvarez’s screaming entrance is about a level and a half louder than anything else in the recording), and the vocal microphones seem to have been purchased from a pawn shop--a lot of the words Shirley Goodman is singing are swallowed up. All of this just adds to the record’s house-party effect.

Down in Belize, the Harmonettes seem to be having a great time playing the song. The Cult Cargo liner notes describe it as a “raw funk” version of S&C’s “slick disco” track, but it’s the exact opposite--the Harmonettes replace the cheap production and loose feel of the original with super-tight ensemble work and ultra-clean engineering. It’s faster, too, like they’re showing off how well they’ve got it down by pushing the tempo. The garage-band sound is thickened--there’s organ here, and instead of a house party, it feels more like a well-heeled hotel lounge. They keep S&C’s joviality completely intact, however. And their version compares quite favorably.

There’s just one problem--the Harmonettes’ singer seems to have misheard at least a third of the song’s lyrics:

Original: “I want you to feel it, too.”
Harmonettes: “I want you to feel the tempo.”

Original: “I’m gonna have my say/I’m going to every discotheque/I’m gonna dance, dance, dance, ooh/Till they make the dance say shame, shame, shame.”
Harmonettes: “I’m going to have my say/I’m going to ancient deesco dance/I’m gonna dance, dance, dance, ooh/If we make the chance--shame, shame shame.”

Original: “Got my sunroof down/Got my diamond in the back/So put on your shaky wig baby/If you don’t then I ain’t coming back.”
Harmonettes: “Got my salmon down/Got my diamond in the back/Pull off your [something or other] . . . do it, band!”

Original: If you don’t want to go/Remember one monkey don’t stop no show/My body needs action/Ain’t gonna blow.”
Harmonettes: If you don’t want to go/Remember one monkey don’t wear no shirt/My body needs action/Ain’t got no clothes.”

What’s remarkable about this isn’t just that Shirley’s melisma and awful mic placement made the words hard to understand--I had to look a few of those lines up myself. It’s that several of the Harmonettes’ substitutions sound absolutely nothing like what she was singing. Goodman enunciates “One monkey don’t stop no show” very clearly; it’s not a line you could mistake for any other, much less “One monkey don’t wear no shirt”--emphasis the Harmonettes’, by the way; the singer leans into the wrong lines like he’s sealing a bet.

The remake is also enunciated clearly--calypsonian tradition emphasizes this, and calypso figures heavily into Cult Cargo's overall sound, even here. By applying this kind of uprightness to the song, the Harmonettes accomplish something rather amazing: They make one of the most gleefully trashy records ever made even trashier.

Change - "The Glow of Love"


Never sold on the soul audience's high regard for Luther Vandross' songwriting (Robert Christgau, at his succinct best, dismised most of it as "humdrum"), especially his ballads (the world needs more lachrymose-or-worse R&B ballads like it needs another set of New York scenesters grinding postpunk signifiers into clean rhythm guitar licks), I turn to "The Glow of Love," the 1980 hit he scored with Change, which he had no hand in writing or producing. A Chic song in all but name -- given Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards' reputation for parsimony when it came to clearing samples, it's odd they didn't blink when this stormed up the charts -- it conjures an evanescence as unforced as a winter morning observed over a postcoital cigarette. This is one of the rare songs that creates and sustains a state of grace. "The Glow of Love" flickers at the same temperature for most of its five minutes, in large part thanks to the interplay between the "Good Times" piano and the block chords played on an unobtrusive synth. And then Luther. How churlish my earlier criticism of Vandross' lack of vocal gravitas seems in this context. Who needs gravitas when you sound this alive, so there? Buoyant, creamy, ethereal, androgynous, he adds layers of subtext to the lyric "so new and true and gay," forging the link between agape and eros like Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" was just a schoolboy idyll on the bus home (it made perfect sense when wan Janet Jackson sampled this in "All For You"). In much the same way that Sir Bryan Ferry has chased the Mother of Pearl through the mists of Avalon for well over 30 years, Vandross' attempts in his own work to reproduce what he achieved on "The Glow of Love" are no less touching for being quixotic. He understood as early as 1980 that happiness is but a glow, a frisson, an experience forged from equal parts memory and imagination.


So smack in the middle of their '94 album Africa to America: The Journey of the Drum - new jack gospel at its finest (don't think Kirk Franklin wasn't takin' notes) - Jam & Lewis and keyboard man Jimmy Wright drop this southern-soul scorcher that sounds like it coulda come straight outta the Al Green Hi songbook. Or Bobby Womack's, for that matter. This is a world away - well, at least a good x-hundred miles south - from the likes of "Optimistic" and "The Pressure Pt. 1," and while those are great records, "The Lord Will Make A Way" is all the better for being that much further away from 'em. Wright's vocals are solid, the backing from the rest of Sounds of Blackness is of course impeccable, but what really makes this song something special is his gutbucket-soul organ playing. Remember, sometimes dirty south juke joints and churches aren't that far apart, in any sense.



The top 11 finishers:

20th: Bettye LaVette - I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
27th: John Legend - Get Lifted
54th: Mariah Carey - The Emancipation of Mimi
77th: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings - Naturally
110th: Keyshia Cole - The Way It Is
122nd: Mary J. Blige - The Breakthrough
197th: Leela James - A Change Is Gonna Come
257th: Anthony Hamilton - Ain't Nobody Worryin
295th: Solomon Burke - Make Do With What You Got
327th: Platinum Pied Pipers - Triple P
327th: Brooke Valentine - Chain Letter

Jamie Lidell, the thinking woman's/man's G. Love, was not considered in this observation.