Music

Remembering Rick James

Adam Williams

While the untimely passing of musicians is always painful, the loss of Rick James is particularly troubling; not simply because he was a rare talent, but more so because he is destined to be remembered for the wrong reasons.

While the untimely passing of musicians is always painful, the loss of Rick James is particularly troubling; not simply because he was a rare talent, but more so because he is destined to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Despite his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer, James will forever be associated with the larger-than-life image he created, a cartoonish alter ego fueled by the clichéd trappings of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. His name remains synonymous with a single song recorded a quarter century ago, and a lurid court case which exposed his inner demons to a perversely fascinated public. Yet beyond the Super Freak mask, James was a brilliant innovator and artist, one who broke down barriers by melding the past with the present so as to create a unique future for popular music.

To better understand James' legacy, it is necessary to briefly revisit his pre-Freak days. James' sensibilities were originally grounded in '60s rock, as he shared time with Neil Young in the Toronto band, the Mynah Birds. Bouncing from Canada to Detroit to London and back, James embarked on various musical journeys, cutting and pasting as he went in an effort to establish himself. Through his affiliation with Motown as a writer and recording artist, James incorporated R&B into his repertoire, subsequently conjuring an aural hybrid he proclaimed to be "funk'n'roll". The significance of this cannot be overstated, for James had followed the rhythmic lead of the Chambers Brothers, Sly Stone and George Clinton before him, blending nuances from different genres and making the final product sonically and visually attractive. Eventually James surpassed his predecessors by way of accessibility: His most successful work, 1981's Street Songs, (the album that spawned "Super Freak"), enjoyed tremendous cross-over appeal at a time when punk and disco were waning, new wave and rap were in their infancies and arena rock was catching its second wind. Rick James exploded onto the scene in a cloud of thumping bass grooves, leather platform boots and shimmering costumes, platinum records and funked up braggadocio. He was everything from Ziggy Stardust to Earth, Wind and Fire, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, he had created a masterpiece and a monster all at once; so successful and intoxicating was James' super fly, super freaky, super hero persona, that he soon stopped playing the role and actually became the role…

Commercially and creatively, the magnitude of "Super Freak" is astounding. Not only did it garner critical acclaim and million seller status after its original release, but it was reborn a decade later as the foundation for the most successful rap song in history, MC Hammer's smash "U Can't Touch This". As a complete composition or simply a looped sample, "Super Freak" became one of the rare tracks to transcend musical boundaries; it grew far larger than a chart topping hit, evolving further into a piece of music's collective consciousness. Ironically, the song's impact was so great that all of James' subsequent efforts were destined for second place status. Perhaps the burden of this realization was the impetus for his descent into personal and professional hell, perhaps not, but "Super Freak" provided James with the financial latitude to immerse himself into depths of destructive hedonism that would have felled mere mortals.

At his best and most creative, James was the consummate showman. Oozing the raw sexuality of James Brown, the confident cool of Jimi Hendrix and the intergalactic style of Bootsy Collins, James took his Super Freakishness to a new level of performance art. Appealing to an impressively diverse audience in concert, on radio and video, Rick James became the supreme ambassador of funk for the masses. As a result, he opened the door to mass market acceptance for Prince and later, Lenny Kravitz, and paved the way for the remarkable mainstream triumph of OutKast. Offstage, James lent his often underestimated studio expertise to acts ranging from the Temptations and Smokey Robinson to Eddie Murphy. Even James' work with the Mary Jane Girls merits mention as it closely resembles Frank Zappa's creation of the GTO's and predates Prince's efforts with Apollonia and Sheila E.

Critics will say that James was a victim of his own addictions and appetites, surviving far longer than he should have. That may be true, but it still doesn't ease the sting of James' passing. The saddest aspect of the Super Freak saga is that after years of debilitating health and legal problems, James had seemingly found peace as a husband and father, and was performing and recording up until his death. The shame is that he was deprived of enjoying more of life's highs as Rick James, having finally put his Mr. Hyde to rest.

Ultimately it is best to look at his career beyond the scope of Super Freak, and acknowledge that Rick James was an artist blessed with as many creative gifts as he was cursed with human flaws. That said, the most fitting tribute might be to balance the positive and negative aspects of his life, then smile and think "you can't touch this".

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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