Hip-Hop and the New Jazz Funk

Maurice Bottomley

For some reason (possibly the urban secularism of both forms) jazz and hip-hop have generally made sympathetic partners.

Yesterday's New Quintet
Angles Without Edges
Stones Throw

Russell Gunn
Ethnomusicology Vol 2
Justin Time

As a reaction to Ken Burns' complete disregard of jazz outside the borders of the USA, there has emerged the ridiculous theory that the States is now lagging behind Europe as far as innovation and the production of new-directional jazz is concerned. This view, most loudly voiced in the UK, is largely based on a dislike of Lincoln Centre preservationism and a preference for European jazz' various fusions with classical, folk and dance forms.

Fond as I am of many of those hybrid developments, the argument is shallow and untenable. It does not even work for Marsalis and his besuited brethren and would certainly have to ignore records like these two. Actually, both Ethnomusicology and Angles Without Edges may find themselves falling down a gap between genres, some multiple forms being more acceptable than others. Hip-hop is the grafted on genus here, and that many-limbed monster still terrifies plenty of jazz fans. Only this month the estimable Jazzwise featured a letter bemoaning "talking" over records (where has he been?) and the dire results of the turntable and the "space invader machine" (where has he been?) replacing "real" instruments.

Now, I must admit to having been less than excited by most recent trends in hip-hop. On the whole the mixing of rap and soul has been to the detriment of the latter. However, for some reason (possibly the urban secularism of both forms) jazz and hip-hop have generally made sympathetic partners. From the days of Guru/Jazzmatazz to the Keb Mo stuff on the last Charlie Hunter album, the cross-fertilisation has usually worked. European acts like Booster and Eric Truffaz have made some interesting recent contributions, but you will go some way to beat these two US releases for that creativity which has supposedly sailed back to the Old World. More importantly, there is an enthusiasm and a sense of flair about both sets that even the currently high flying French will find hard to match.

To be fair, they are not hip-hop albums in even the loosest sense. Even though the Russell Gunn says file under hip-hop/jazz and the Yesterday's New Quintet is the brainchild of Madlib best known for his work with the Alkoholics, if its Busta Rhymes or Tupac you're expecting, look elsewhere. The Gunn set is a straight jazz session with some turntablism plus a few nods to early '80s hip-hop and DC Go-Go rhythms. The Yesterday's New Quintet album sounds like a cut-up Headhunters album (circa 1973). Both should therefore be, at best, a little dated and, at worst, totally redundant. They are in fact fresh and vital - the Gunn disc because of its exuberance and energy and the Yesterday's New Quintet record because of the breakbeat weirdness that gives the '70s sounds a welcome edginess.

Gunn takes some standards that you thought you never wanted to hear again ("Epistrophy", "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Caravan") and toughens them up with some no-nonsense beats (courtesy of DJ Apollo). His excellent band (bassist Lonnie Plaxico and keyboardist Marc Cary being on particularly good form) then deliver a mixture of post-bop funkiness and some old-fashioned pre-bop swing. What you get is like a compressed jazz history in one take, but with a contemporary hipness to it that stops it just short of pastiche. There is an initial archness about the project but it soon fades.

Gunn as a trumpeter is muscular and melodic in a Lee Morgan/Booker Little fashion and has a field day. He played with the exceptionally gifted but rather under-achieving Buckshot Le Fonque and this is really the full-on, jazz-rich Buckshot album that the outfit never delivered. The uptempo cuts are irresistibly bouncing (must be great live) and the intervening slower tunes fluid and sensual. It represents a perfect approach to heritage and "the tradition". Everything is recognisably what it used to be but the overall feel is absolutely of our own time.

Lalo Schifrin's "Del Rio" has already seen hip-hop service, but seldom sounder sweeter than on the take included here, while the self-penned "Lyne's Joint" is a hard bop ballad given a jazz/funk arrangement that would give some old Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd records a run for their money. It is all very accessible stuff and therefore may not appeal to highbrows. It is jazz playing of the highest order though and open-minds will see it as such. Gunn has as good a tone as any current trumpeter and more swing than most. If you want a record that is exploratory but feelgood at the same time this one fits the bill.

This is where it perhaps scores over the European versions, which can be a little dour and self-conscious. The Ethnomethodology musicians are clearly playing at Home. Gunn is an African-American jazz man who grew up in the hip-hop era. Both forms are his and the ease of the amalgamation is evident. This is music that feels no need to theorise or explain itself. The cultural reference points are obvious but devoid of cliché. The past and the present "collide" melodiously and to the mutual benefit of each. As an example of a dialogue between distinct phases of the black vernacular, musically speaking, this set wears its scholarship lightly. This is because Gunn et al know the different texts off by heart. It is of course a conscious montage process, not some "natural" outpouring, yet it is unforced and therefore completely engaging.

Yesterday's New Quintet produce much stranger fare, but the past/present juxtaposition is if anything more pronounced on Angles Without Edges. At first I thought it was a collection of '70s samples strung together in the manner of a jazzier, funkier DJ Shadow. It is however all played by a real improvising group. What generates the collage effect is the fact that 36 separate sessions were recorded and then spliced together with a breaks and beats sensibility.

What could have been both messy (and not a little pretentious) is, I think, the most interesting set of sounds to come out of leftfield hip-hop/nu jazz vibes for ages. If this set had been on Ubiquity or had emerged from some West London studios the UK dance magazines would have been all over it. As it is, it comes with the tag hip-hop and reeks of Mwandlishi-era jazz/funk and so gets sent to the R&B and jazz journals who can only see the eccentricity and not feel the groove. Despite the unvarnished, experimental feel of most of the numbers, tracks like "Thinking of You" and "Sun Goddess" are potential future club classics.

The instrumentation (plenty of Fender Rhodes, kalimba, vibraphone and synths) manages to be both organically nostalgic and futuristic and Madlib supplies some bass heavy beats to nail the whole package down. At first listen the spoken samples and the jazz intertexts sound too close to trip-hoppy, downtempo meandering but once the the rhythms kick in (there is some wonderful percussion throughout the set) you realise this is something closer to the source than most of that product. Postmodern it most certainly is, not in that anemic, cerebrally playful fashion we have come to be so bored by, but in a dynamic and challenging manner. Meet the new funky experimentalism.

Madlib and Russell Gunn make Black music. Rootsy, but forward-looking. Gunn's is the more straightforward package. It is not just closer to orthodox jazz, it is a model of orthodoxy, in the best sense. Madlib is probably even truer to the jazz aesthetic, although his singularity will be the harder for the mainstream to digest. Neither has lost sight of the core strengths of African-American musicality. Both are making music that should silence those who would deny jazz' home a say in how that musicality might develop in years to come.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

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Release Date: 2017-08-11

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