[16 November 2004]
For some peculiar reason, the Isley Brothers may never get their due. With a career that stretches back about 50 years now, the Isleys provided the Beatles with one of their best early hits, had Jimi Hendrix in their band before he became a legend, made some of the most exciting soul music of the era years before Otis Redding hit the scene, and laid down funk so hard its only rivals were James Brown and George Clinton. And thanks to R. Kelly, they maintained a reasonably high public profile into the 21st Century. So why aren’t they treated like the heroes that they are? Perhaps they, like the Kinks, were simply too mercurial over the course of their career to ever let anyone get a proper bead on them. When they are remembered, it’s usually for “Shout” and “Twist and Shout”, thus confining them to the oldies bin right next to Ben E. King. “It’s Your Thing” and their lone Motown hit, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, get some play, too, but these limited samplings don’t give a decent representation of how deep the Isleys went into their various phases, or of the quality of their body of work.
The hip-hop community has been the one reliable source of affection for the Isley Brothers, lifting their terrific beats and riffs regularly throughout its history. Maybe it was therefore inevitable that a disc like Taken to the Next Phase would eventually find its way onto the market. A collection of 10 remixes of classic Isley tunes by various artists including Mos Def, ?uestlove, De La Soul, and others with lower profiles, Taken runs square into the question facing all remix albums: why? For those unacquainted with the practice, remix albums are the live records of the non-rock world, that is, they count as another step towards fulfillment of an artist’s contractual obligations and another way to milk some cash from the diehards while offering precious little of merit in return. Taken announces that it could either be much better or much worse with its list of guest stars. Does it represent a meeting of the minds between the elder statesmen Isleys and their gifted progeny, or is this just hip-hop’s version of guest spots from Eric Clapton and Elton John?
The truth turns out to be somewhere in the vast plain between success and failure. De La Soul single-handedly delivers on all the promise that such a project could possibly have with “It’s a New Thing”, an update of “It’s Your Thing” the uses the source as a launch pad for a great song that could legitimately be called original. It’s the rarest of remixes that successfully juggles the difficulties of sampling, borrowing without stealing, reworking without bastardizing. A few others win their battles as well. The Ignorants have a lot of fun with “Take Me to the Next Phase”, and Raphael Saadig does just fine by “Harvest for the World”. Moments like these make the bridge between soul/funk and hip-hop seem like a natural and even an excellent idea.
The rest of the attempts on Taken to the Next Phase, while never sinking into outright embarrassment, do give rise to the wish that the aforementioned bridge would finally get burned for the sake of everyone involved. The biggest problem is that the remixers take the worst parts of the Isley Brothers legacy. Listen to their box set, It’s Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers, and you get a sense of incredible frustration about midway through disc two that they traded in the energy and invention of their early years for a quiet storm faux-sexiness that killed off everything that was great about soul in the first place. That Taken turns these songs into R. Kelly outtakes isn’t a surprise, but it manages to be disappointing anyway. One not only senses that the Isleys could be remixed into something genuinely exciting, the proof is right there on this album, outnumbered though it may be. Taken to the Next Phase will have to take its place alongside all the Isley material of the last three decades that can’t possibly live up to that from the first two.