One wonder of hip-hop in the 1980s was learning how these revolutionary new artists would use unexpected source-sounds to make music that was jarringly new and freshly funky. So, it’s hardly a new notion that remix artists could take something that once seemed square and give it the spacious groove of the NEW.
Not that Nat “King” Cole was ever entirely square. His early trio was elegant but also puckish, putting across funky tunes like “Hit That Jive, Jack” and unleashing Cole’s brilliant jazz piano. But soon enough, Cole the vocalist had a smash record, and a string of mainstream successes followed: a TV show, a whole lot of dates featuring heavy-handed string sections, more than a few cardigan sweaters.
And so it is somewhat jarring to hear Cole, the star vocalist of 50 years ago, placed at the center of a baker’s dozen of hip-hop remixes by the artists of today. But Cole works well as the guiding-star of Re: Generations precisely because he was such a diverse artist who crossed from the funky and cool to the schmaltzy and square. The remix artists use a huge range of Cole’s expression, from the sublime to the goofy. But because the art of the remix is inherently reconfigurative, even the uncool Cole music takes on a neat new burnish here.
Cee-Lo (of Gnarls Barkley) steps out first by using short snippets of Cole’s version of “Lush Life”, the brilliant Billy Strayhorn song. The line “I was wrong” is looped to create a groove, under which Cee-Lo places a loose-limbed drum loop and bouncing funk bass part. When he uses other lines from the song, however (“Romance is mush” or “Girls I knew had sad and sullen grey faces”), they are not in the same key as the looped “I was wrong” groove, creating a bracing feeling of tension. The synthesized strings and horns, plus a wah-wah guitar, add just enough sugar to the drink.
A few of the tracks are fairly traditional, channeling a great Cole performance and simply funking it up a bit. The best is what The Roots have done with “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”—adding a modern piano part and a hip, rising acoustic bass line that still mesh organically with the original. They let the Cole vocal move the song from beginning to end, but they have deconstructed the big-band arrangement around it, taking only the best parts and using them as specific color in key places. Then, after 2:40, they drop a hip-hop groove around which they continue to use the Cole orchestration (and shadowy elements of the vocal) as color. Black Thought raps a story about, of course, walking with a woman.
will.i.am’s take on “Straighten Up and Fly Right” is even more straight-forward, with a drum loop and half-time bassline providing the only modern touch. This is one of those duets between Nat and his daughter Natalie Cole, including a sweet little scat solo by the younger Cole. Cut Chemist provides a much more satisfying transformation for “Day In and Day Out” without vanquishing the original song. The rhythm arrangement is incredibly fun, with the producer’s interventions following the lyrics closely (“the pounding of the drums” is accompanied by exactly that) and with a happy fun-box of effects used near-continually over the basic guitar lick that Chemist loops. Despite it all, the basic Cole vocal survives as a classic. “Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere” also puts the vocal performance out front, plopping the chorus atop some fat DX7 chords and a synth bass.
The early Cole track “Hit That Jive, Jack” is used in a spotty but ingenious way by Souldiggaz & Weirdos. The chorus is a recurring motif that underscores a whole new song that mixes rapping (hilarious), harmony singing, soul shouting, a southern party groove, and even a dose of call-and-response that sounds a bit like Ray Charles for a new era.
In some cases, Cole performances that were never his best are used brilliantly to create new songs that are better than the old ones. “Calypso Blues” is converted into a more driving performance, undergirded by a fully realized conga/bongo track and a reggae sensibility courtesy of Damien and Stephen Marley. Cole’s vocal is isolated from its original context, and it takes on a new strength. Michaelangelo Lacqua uses Cole’s “Brazilian Love Song” in conjunction with a new vocal by Bebel Gilberto, creating a modern bossa that is infinitely tougher and more enjoyable than the original. The new Rhodes and acoustic guitar solos keep the tune alive in the Cole tradition without being overly respectful.
The more exotic side of Nat Cole’s recorded output is probably over-represented here. His “More and More of Your Amor” is given a somewhat campy Ricky Ricardo treatment—a tongue-in-cheek lounge groove set up by Bitter:Sweet that is fun(ny) but cheesy. “The Game of Love” is a punchy Latin ditty defined by its flute/piccolo line, which then sets up a Nas rap that is better than what surrounds it. “El Choclo” is a hip-hop tango produced by Brazilian Girls, and it is mainly a jittery mess that samples Cole singing in Spanish.
Just Blaze does a neat piece of work with “Pick Up” by writing a story song that uses Cole’s sung lines as one half of a dialogue between Cole and the girls he is trying to pick up. Sure, it’s played for laughs, but it’s pretty hip, with a pulsing groove underneath. I’m sure there will also be fans of the dark and gothic-sounding remix of “Nature Boy” done by TV on the Radio. It’s the most out-there work on Re: Generations, with distorted guitar playing harsh sustains over a military snare pattern and a sequenced synth pattern of syncopations. “Nature Boy” has always been a song that I did not understand the appeal of, and that remains true here as well.
In the remix genre, what’s next? I’d like to hear this treatment given to the great Louis Armstrong. Pops had a voice that would kill against these new rhythms, and I’d like to hear his trumpet distorted or looped. How about “Black and Blue” over a funk groove? Besides, unlike Nat Cole, Louis Armstrong was kind of a badass. (Anything to wipe away the sound of that Kenny G version of “What a Wonderful World”.) Let’s go, hip-hop nation: jazz is good for you!