Reviews

Movin' On Up

From its first eerily harmonized soul anthems through the feverish funk of Superfly, this two-disc documentary establishes Mayfield’s visionary leadership.


Movin' On Up

Subtitle: The Music And Message Of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
Display Artist: David Peck, Phil Galloway, Tom Gulotta, Rob Bowman
Director: Rob Bowman
Cast: Curtis Mayfield, Altheida Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, Johnny Pate, Andrew Young, Carlos Santana, Chuck D
Distributor: Hip-O
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2008-05-06

Most people, asked to name a Curtis Mayfield song, will come up with something from Superfly, the superlative title track, spectrally funky “Freddy’s Dead” or the ethereally ominous “Pusherman”, both classics of the '70s funk era. There’s no question that these are great songs, full of biting social commentary and lacerating funk grooves. Yet for Mayfield, a serious, thoughtful man with long roots in the civil rights movement, it must have rankled that his best, most commercially successful songs were from the soundtrack to scenes of drug abuse and social degradation.

Ironic, yes, that the soul singer dubbed ‘the preacher” or “the reverend”, whose luminous “People Get Ready” became an unofficial anthem of the Freedom Rides, should be so closely associated with the fallout years, that post-Vietnam period when heroin took over the black neighborhoods. Movin’ On Up, an expansive documentary, tells both halves of these interlocking stories: the early years when Mayfield, along with Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden sang high, eerie harmonies about a better world; and the later ones when his incendiary funk band sketched a nightmare scenario of poverty, dysfunction and crime.

The split for Mayfield, as for many soul musicians, came in 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. “Curtis who had sung about the triumph and the glory of us coming together as a people was now faced with a reality that I was faced with. Life without a Martin Luther King. Life without a Robert Kennedy. Life without a John Kennedy or a Malcolm X,” says Andrew Young, in an interview. “All of these were people who were voices of hope and they shared a vision. And we’ve been floundering ever since in some ways.”

The darkness that descended can be heard in Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going on and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and in Curtis Mayfield’s post-Impressions body of work. And, in many ways, these are the classics of '70s R&B and soul, prophetic and chilling and physically irresistible.

The documentary starts with Sam Gooden and Fred Cash reminiscing about their earliest days with Mayfield, Cash young enough to have to ask his mother for permissions when the other two drove up in a big car and asked him to join the Impressions. (She said okay.) The two surviving Impressions are natty and soft-spoken, recalling without much evident rancor, how the profits from early hit records never seemed to trickle down to the band. They dress as sharply as they did in their earliest performances, a 1965 clip of “It’s All Right” zooming in on a very young trio in three-piece suits singing high, swoon-inducing harmonies and snapping fingers. Johnny Pate, the jazz musician and producer who crafted the band’s lush, horns-and-strings embellished sound, recalls initially looking down on pop songwriters, armed with only a chord or two.

The Impressions’ sincerity, and their ability to nail upper register harmonies won him over. He recalls that during an early recording session, “On the end of ‘I’ve been trying’, the group went into some high falsetto harmonic things that were really unheard of…Nobody had done it before,” he says. Later, while recording “I Need You” the trio tried it again. “The amazing part,” Pate remembers. “It’s all in tune. In perfect harmony, in tune…This began to be a signature thing for the Impressions.”

Pate worked with the Impressions on a string of '60s hits, including the gospel-influenced “People Get Ready. (The only footage that can be found shows the band in a sort of pleasure boat, paddling around a pond as they sing its lovely melody.) Andrew Young is the first to introduce the idea that Mayfield was more than just a musician, but a political figure of sorts, inspiring and giving voice to the hopeful elements of the fight for racial equality. “You have to think of CM as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and of our time,” he says, and given his stature in the movement and the black community, it is a rather remarkable statement.

“People Get Ready” was the first in a series of politically-messaged songs, a string that included “We’re a Winner”, “This is My Country”, “Choice of Colors” and “Meeting Over Yonder”, as Mayfield introduced as much social consciousness as he could into songs meant for a mainstream audience. The juxtaposition of entertainment and politics sometimes makes for some weird images. The Impressions perform “Meeting Over Yonder”, in one clip, in front of an all-white audience, with two gyrating go-go girls flanking them. Later, they are almost prevented from singing “Choice of Colors” on the Joey Bishop show by an overweening producer. Bishop, hearing the argument, finally comes out and tells them to play their hit. They do, and it is a stark and wonderful song, performed, somewhat incongruously, in front of Vegas-y flashing lights.

As his songs became more political, Mayfield was also striving to become more self-reliant economically. He left the Impressions in 1970 and founded Curtom Records, a label which released his own solo material, subsequent Impressions records (with Leeroy Hutson taking the lead), some Staple Singers recordings and others. His solo material took a far more serious, ominous tone during the '70s. He assembled the killer funk rhythm section that defined his sound: Josephh “Lucky” Scott on bass, Henry Gibson on congas and hand drums and Tyrone McMullen on kit drums.

You can hear the stark contrast, starting on disc two with an early Mayfield solo single “Hell Below”. The video for this cut is pure '70s funk, images of armed police, American flags, angry faces, even Disney ears, interspersed with shots of Mayfield walking, back to audience, through a grassy, tranquil place. You don’t see Mayfield’s face until near the end, and he’s not performing, just staring moodily away from the camera. White people are not grooving on camera or following whimsically in boats in this world. They are arguing with each other, talking emphatically with their hands, mouths drawn tight…not sympathetic types at all, clearly the enemy.

Chuck D of Public Enemy is, perhaps, the most trenchant observer of this shift, not just in Mayfield’s career, but in the world at large. D recalls uncles who might once have snuck a reefer in some back corner now battling full-fledged heroin addictions, Vietnam veterans struggling to find a place in neighborhoods that had turned more violent since they’d left. “What Curtis was doing in the seventies was talking directly to someone who might have came back from Vietnam....[The sound] was darker for some reason…but the groove was so thick,” D recalls.

Mayfield seems to have been somewhat ambiguous about his role as a spokesman, in a 1987 interview stating that, “I’m an entertainer first. I don’t claim to be Martin Luther King or a preacher or anything else, even though maybe there are signs of these things in my lyrics. Everything – love appreciation and anything else – starts out first with respect. If I can establish some identify as to making you respect me as a human and then accept me as an entertainer, then let’s do that.”

But there is no denying that Mayfield found his broadest canvas in the strife of the early '70s. His soundtrack to Superfly was widely recognized as far better and more socially conscious than the film it supported. Movin’ On Up offers only still photographs from the movie, but it does include clips of Mayfield performing three of the soundtrack’s best known songs, “Superfly”, “Freddy’s Dead”, and “Pusherman”. The footage of “Superfly” is nothing short of stunning, Mayfield in a kango hat, playing in an arena somewhere, the heat of the rhythm simmering under the chill of his unearthly high falsetto, wah wahs twitching, bass player grooving hook-fingered over the low strings. The band is sweating, Mayfield looks perfectly cool and collected, rocking almost imperceptibly from the hips, as he plays his guitar.

Superfly was Mayfield’s biggest commercial success, and afterwards, with the onset of disco, he lowered his profile, working mostly on soundtracks and taking time off to raise his kids. He continued to play and record through the '70s and '80s, and was performing in Brooklyn in August 1990 when a freak storm knocked a lighting rig over on him and paralyzed him from the neck down.

Movin’ On Up includes some very moving segments of a 1996 interview, where Mayfield talks about his regrets, how every human being ought to be able to leave this world whole, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. And Chuck D who spent time with Mayfield during this late period, recalls, “When he told me his biggest regret was not being able to play the guitar, that was something that stuck with me for years because it says that…you know, don’t take any of your gifts for granted.”

But as the title may imply, Movin’ on Up doesn’t spend a lot of time on the tragic coda to Mayfield’s life, instead preferring to concentrate on his life and music. His widow, Altheida Mayfield, recalls that at some point early on in his years as an invalid, Mayfield made a point of listening to every song he’d ever written, one after another, in chronological order. This documentary gives ordinary fans much the same opportunity, summing up an extraordinary life through music.

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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