DJ Spinna and BBE Back At It

DJ Spinna - Strange Games Vol 5 DJ Spinna & BBE Soundsystem
Strange Games & Funky Things Volume 5 – Smoking ’70s Soul and Rare Grooves
(BBE) 2010

Purchase: Amazon

Back on the hunt for the forgotten gems of 1970s soul, DJ Spinna and BBE craft another compelling exploration of hip-hop and R&B’s roots.

Best known for the Beat Generation LPs by J Dilla, Pete Rock, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, boutique British label BBE is firmly established as a premium purveyor of instrumental releases and breaks compilations for crate diggers everywhere. Their Strange Games series of 1970s soul compilations dates back to 1997.  Volume 5 is the first to feature DJ Spinna since 2001’s critically acclaimed Strange Games and Things, and it is a worthy successor.  Times may have changed, but Spinna and BBE’s common focus on the forgotten gems of ’70s soul has not, and this consistency keeps them from being forgotten gems themselves.

According to BBE, Strange Games “represents the blueprint for modern R&B and rap music” and “joins the dots between ’70s soul, ’80s rare groove, and ’90s mass market hip hop.” A few beats will be instantly recognizable to the average rap fan, namely “Faded Lady,” famously sampled by Diamond D and Busta Rhymes, but most of this will be virgin territory for all but soul, disco, and world music experts, and of course hip-hop producers. Other than the notable exception of War, details on many of these songs and artists are frustratingly scant on the web, making this an excellent jump off for your own explorations of these genres.

The first highlight of many is the opener, “Get It Up for Love” by Ned Doheny. A blue-eyed soul singer-songwriter who developed a following in Japan, Doheny is barely remembered stateside.  For fans of Philadelphia soul, the subject of many quality compilations in its own right, check out “I Ain’t Got the Love (Of One Girl on my Mind)” by The Ambassadors, a long out-of-print tune that’s 1998 re-release went largely unnoticed (update: I recently became aware of Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “I Ain’t Got the Love”, which makes excellent use of this sample).  Other highlights like sampling favorites “For The Love Of Money” by the Philly Armada Orchestra and “Ashley’s Roach Clip”  by the Soul Searchers  are much funkier and feature no vocals at all. The juxtaposition of these two styles, and often the combination of them, is indicative of the overall sound of the Strange Games series.

The Strange Games vibe is laid back but fun, and as one might guess, this is an ideal mix for an after party. DJ Spinna does a great job of highlighting the best grooves and keeping the vibe steady, and his cuts are remarkably unobtrusive. If you would like the tracks in their entirety, there is also a second, unmixed disc included, a common practice by BBE that has further endeared them to beat junkies. The additional disc is perfect for the shuffle-heavy habits of digital music listeners but does have five fewer tracks.  Unfortunately, Merry Clayton’s stellar cover of “Gimme Shelter” does not make the cut.  You are not likely to run out and buy the entire discography of any artist featured here.  In fact that would be rather difficult to do.   Yet this is a solid compilation from front to back, an excellent addition to late-night playlists, and a worthy entry in this series and the BBE catalogue as a whole.

Rating: 7/10

(This review was originally published on PopMatters on October 29, 2010)

The Roots Are Still Right On

The Roots

The Roots are high on the list of artists I’ve seen live the most times.  My first time was in high school at Drew University during the Things Fall Apart tour, and most recently I had the pleasure of catching one of The Roots Jam shows at Highline Ballroom this past summer.  The realization that these shows were well over ten years apart was a bit disconcerting (via feeling old), but I took comfort in the fact that I was out past 2 on a weeknight!

The Highline show was the day before the new album, How I Got Over, came out and it was killer.  They played very little of the new stuff, which is always fine by me, and gave me my jamming fix after a particularly poor Phish show at Saratoga a few days earlier.  The Roots have been called the best live band in hip-hop for years, and rightfully so, but their live show is on a whole other level these days.  If you’ve seen them once or twice, or at a festival, and are thinking “been there, done that,” do yourself a favor and get to a show.

I’ve had a little time with the new album, and it’s quite good, but one track really stands out, “Right On” which features and samples Joanna Newsom.  Newsom’s appearance, along with Monsters of Folk and Dirty Projectors, have led many to point to the influence of their new indie rock friends from the Fallon show, but “Right On” is straight classic 90s hip-hop.  Heck, it sounds more 90s underground than The Roots actually sounded during that time.  I think it’s telling of the profound influence the late J Dilla’s work has had on them that last few albums, as the beat reminds me of Dilla’s production on Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia.

Give it a listen over on Famous Sounding Words

So This Happened

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
(DFA) 2010

Purchase: Amazon

So many great new albums have come out since my last post I barely know where to start, but a good place would probably be This Is Happening, the new LCD Soundsystem album that came out May 17.  If you don’t have a copy yet, that’s an error I suggest you correct as soon as possible.

This Is Happening, the follow up to their 2007 masterpiece Sound of Silver, is an amazing achievement in its own right and a serious contender for my favorite record of 2010.  As many artists tend to do when following up an album many deemed “perfect,” they try to rise to the occasion by expanding their sound and taking creative chances.  And as often happens, the resulting record is not as consistent as its predecessor, but its high points exceed almost all of their creator’s previous successes.  “I Can Change” and “All I Want” are textbook examples of these highs, and currently my #1 and #2 favorite songs of the year.

Another cliché of the follow up album, “the polarizing lead single,” is also in play with “Drunk Girls,” the lyrically quotable, but musically annoying “jock jam” that has expanded the group’s popularity with the bro set but become the central focus of those claiming the album’s inferiority to previous works.  I don’t dislike “Drunk Girls” or “One Touch,” the second and third tracks on the album, but in light of the genius that transpires from track four on, their inclusion is a bit suspect, especially so early on where it derails the momentum set by magnum opus opener “Dance Yrself Clean.”

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Jay Electronica Channels Biggie Smalls

jayelectronica

If you’ve read a music magazine any time in the last two years, you’re probably aware that Drake is the hottest new rapper in the game right now.  If you’ve read a music blog any time in that period, you may also be aware that the man pictured above, the elusive Jay Electronica, is the hottest new emcee in the game, and depending on who you ask, he just might be the savior of hip-hop.

You can read about his curious methods on Wikipedia, but here’s a few key details.  He’s from New Orleans.  He likes to rap over movie scores.  He’s released most of his material via posts in random web forums and his mysteriously disappearing and reappearing MySpace and Twitter accounts.    He just had a baby with Erykah Badu.  He has produced for and toured with Nas.  There is intense speculation as to when, if ever, he will release a proper debut album.  And oh yeah, he can rap his ass off.

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The Best Album of the Year So Far

Beach House - Teen Dream Beach House
Teen Dream
(Sub Pop) 2010

Purchase: Amazon

Merriweather Post Pavilion was released on January 6, 2009.  The year wasn’t even a week old and people were already calling it the best album of 2009.  It seemed crazy, but sure enough, come December the bigger question was where to put it on your  Best of the Decade list.  January 2010 is a tad early to talk about Best of the Decade, but as we entered the New Year something seemed eerily familiar.  A highly anticipated January release, Teen Dream by Beach House, was already being projected as a potential album of the year.

JimmyMorrisTweet

Jimmy Morris is a fellow music blogger that I follow on Twitter (check out his excellent site Head Underwater) and his bite-sized review on the eve of the album’s official release directly addressed a question that, while premature, was definitely on my mind.  I didn’t hear the album until the next day, and I’m still not sure if I agree with his statement, but they are close enough in quality that I think it boils down to taste rather than superiority.  Pink Floyd has been my favorite band since grade school, and I’ve seen Phish more times than I care to admit in a public forum, so it’s safe to say that I’m pre-disposed to loving Animal Collective.

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Fang Island “Daisy”

Fang Island - Daisy

Back in November 2001, hip-hop was still my genre of choice and I was a little too engrossed by the Jay-Z/Nas beef to check out a rock artist screaming about “partying hard.”  Being unfamiliar with Andrew WK’s work, I wasn’t that intrigued when I kept reading about Fang Island, an up-and-coming group that shares his penchant for genuinely unpretentious, in your face rock and roll; heavy on the handclaps, heavier on the hooks, and even heavier on the guitars.  But after hearing “Daisy,” and the rest of Fang Island’s excellent self-titled debut, I’m thinking it might be time to revisit his work.

Fang Island take their name from Donald Rumsfeld’s fictional hideout in an article by The Onion, and they have such a happy disposition that the chorus to “Daisy” goes “hey that’s alright, yeah that’s ok, hey that’s alright, whoa whoa,” or something along those lines.  In a recent interview they described their sound as “everyone high-fiving each other,” and that’s actually a pretty good description.  The riffs on Fang Island wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rush album, and at times, it’s even reminiscent of (gulp) hair metal, yet it contains no trace of irony.  It’s sort of amazing they haven’t sold a billion records already.

Fang Island does not fit the conventional definition of “indie rock,” to put it mildly, so it’s odd seeing them endorsed on so many blogs.  It’s as if they slipped through the cracks and now it’s the web’s job to put them on mainstream media’s radar.  So here I am doing my part, pick yourself up a copy of Fang Island, and prepare to do the happy dance.

http://www.lala.com/external/flash/SingleSongWidget.swf

Das Racist – Shut Up Dude

Das Racist - Shut Up Dude

Even if you’ve never heard of Das Racist, you might be familiar with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” their ridiculous novelty track that hit the web in late 2008.  “I’m at the Pizza Hut” “I’m at the Taco Bell” “I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” While mildly amusing, I’d rank it among the worst songs I’ve ever heard, but its musical quality is irrelevant since it’s just a joke, which is obvious when you hear the group’s non-fast food themed songs on Shut Up Dude, their new mix tape presented by Brooklyn-based fashion designer Mishka NYC.

“Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is an accurate indicator of the group’s sense of humor, easily their defining characteristic, but what you can’t tell from the call-and-response chorus and silly banter is that Das Racist are actually skilled wordsmiths.  Their rhymes are often nonsensical, lyrical substance is not their m.o., but they’ve got wordplay for days.  The best example of their style, and finest moment in their short career, is “Rainbow in the Dark,” their second single and the standout track on Shut Up Dude.  (the music video is embedded at the bottom of this post)

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