[20 August 2008]
Remix albums can serve several purposes: They fulfill contracts, make an album sound better, or in some cases, make it sound worse. Often, sketched out ideas are fleshed out and sometimes fleshed out ideas are stripped back to their barebones. Some remixes are instantly recognizable, while others are so fresh that only the faintest whiff of the original can be heard. People release remix albums to give other artists, usually artists they revere and respect, a chance to reinvent or reinterpret their work. In essence, remix albums are the aural equivalent of Hollywood remakes of old movies, or unknown foreign films. Sometimes they need to be re-made; sometimes they should be left alone.
But what about the remake you see or hear without any knowledge of the original? This is how I enter this review. Does that make it critically questionable? Perhaps. But, like a younger brother, stepping out from the shadow of his older sibling, I review this album as a stand-alone release. I won’t compare and contrast, tell you what has been tweaked and what hasn’t been touched. I won’t tell you which version is better, or which remixer has provoked a musical injustice. I will, however, tell you that, despite its aforementioned status as an accompaniment to an existing album, Lagos Shake is a great record in its own right.
And even though I have never heard the original album I have heard Tony Allen, the creator of the record from which this remix album is birthed. Tony Allen produced two of my favorite afrobeat albums in Jealousy/Progress and No Accommodation. As a drummer for Fela Kuti he helped define the afrobeat sound, pushing rhythmic boundaries, and constantly propelling a series of bands forward with his percussion. In his 40-plus year career, he has played on over 50 albums and recently came to more popular prominence as the drummer in Damon Albarn’s post-Blur, post-Gorrillaz group, The Good, the Bad and the Queen. Suffice it to say, with his musical pedigree, I’m sure there were a slew of remixers waiting to get their hands on these tracks that first appeared on his 2006 release, Lagos No Shaking.
As anyone familiar with Allen’s work might expect, this remix album is groove heavy and filled with a variety of beats that vary from propulsive percussion to laidback, rolling rhythms. It is also an album full of juxtapositions and fusions. Wareika Hill melds Africa with the Mid-East and throws in a facet of reggae for good measure, while Carl Craig pits the organic against electronic, transferring Tony Allen from West Africa to the Balearic Islands, giving “Kilode” a techno sheen. Newham Generals (a London-based hip-hop group signed to Dizzee Rascal’s label) take Allen’s Nigerian roots out of the equation altogether, and leave us with a skittering, squeaking, and squalling instrumental that Missy Elliot might want to commandeer as a backing track.
Regardless of the route they take—deconstruction or reconstruction—each artist involved stamps their own indelible mark upon the song they re-work. As one might expect from a band that features eight brass players, the album’s opening track, remixed by the Hypnotic Bass Ensemble, is horn heavy and groove laden. It also happens to be the one song that sounds most like Allen’s ‘70s solo work. Bonde Do Role’s “Awa Na Re” mixes tribal rhythms with their own brand of glitchy beats, while minimalist techno producer Mark Ernestus’ contribution, entitled “Mark’s Disco Dub”, is a hypnotic, minimalist, and dub-infused track.
The best interpretations also throw samba and soul into the mix. Son Palenque De Colombia’s upbeat “Samba” sounds like a South American soccer anthem and features Mariachi horns and vocal chants. Africa and America meet on Salah Ragab’s “Ole”, which mixes soul horns with jazz piano for an intoxicating old-school track. Only Diplo’s contribution falls short. The Philadelphia DJ brings out a banging anthem that would work expertly in the club environment, but here, amid the diverse array of influences, it sounds prototypical and by the numbers.
The respect these artists have for Tony Allen is apparent due to the rhythmically heavy nature of this record. Even Carl Craig’s techno take on “Kilode” ends with a percussive heavy passage that emphasizes Tony Allen’s talent. This is a remix album that not only steps out of the shadows of its older sibling; it can already stand on its own two feet.