Music

The Transitions: Back in Da Days

Mark Anthony Neal

The Transitions

Back in Da Days

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2001-03-27
Amazon
iTunes

When Biggie (the late Notorious B.I.G.) waxed poetic about "back in the day" in the song "Things Done Change", there was reason to pause -- Biggie's "back in the day" would have been Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights circa 1980, the same year Reagan was anointed President and three years after then President Jimmy Carter paid a well publicized visit to a shit-hole known as Charlotte Street in the borough affectionately known as the "boogie-down". By all accounts there was not much to celebrate back then in those urban enclaves that became synonymous with urban blight and a burgeoning urban underclass (you all have read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire Vanities, right?). Not that Biggie was mistaken, no doubt there was much luv on the planet they call Brooklyn in those days as they still luv deeply and meaningfully in most urban communities, but that don't mean that there ain't drama on the regular.

It is perhaps such romanticizing about recent urban history -- a state that I refer to as "post-industrial nostalgia" -- that allows folks to continue to have faith in the face of drug addiction, high unemployment, police brutality (it's a damn shame what's gone down in Cincinnati these last seven or eight years), diminishing services, etc. It is this nostalgia for the era when black urban communities begin to wilt under the pressure of de-industrialization, municipal collapse, and heroin addiction, that informs the debut release of The Transitions, a trio managed by Michael Bivens, he of New Edition and the creative energy behind the early career of the unforgettable Boys II Men and the more forgettable Another Bad Creation (ABC) and Subway.

With their debut Back in Da Days, The Transitions recall the Harlem that Chester Himes made so famous in a string of detective novels such as Pink Toes, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue, the latter two of which were the inspiration for Blaxploitation staples of the same title from the 1970s. In fact Bivens has suggested that the recording was based on a film treatment he created which was inspired by Blaxploitation fare such as Hell Up in Harlem, Three the Hard Way, and of course Black Caeser. The recordings cover art reflects this notion as it looks like a film advertisement.

While Bivens's rave that the group is like having "Donny Hathaway, Bobby Womack, and Al Green, in their prime, all in one group" would only hold sway with a generation of music consumers who have not really listened to the body of work of the aforementioned classic Soul Men, the trio of Charles "Gator" Moore, Rashawn Worthen, Balawa Muhammad more than competently update the classic Soul Man sound of the 1970s. It may be a coincidence that Muhammad, who with brother Dauwd Muhammad was one of the co-writers of Donell Jones's "U Know What's Up", began his career with a group formed Luther Campbell, since The Transitions seem like an updated version of Campbell's H-Town, albeit with a little more talent.

The recording's lead single, "Ghetto Laws", co-written by group members and producer Daniel Pierre, captures best the sensibility found throughout the recording, namely how can "we" soulfully narrate the tensions of the ghetto over the sound of classic Soul. Clearly influenced by the "Thug" Soul of Jaheim and Dave Hollister the lead single falls flat with its over-wrought organ melody that sounds like it was from some dance scene that was left on the editing floor for the film Blacula. The trio sounds much more accomplished when the production is left to K-Gee and Eric Williams. K-Gee was behind the boards for the recordings most infectious tune "Back in Da Days" which should have been the project's lead single. Though it's hard not to chuckle at lyrics like "back in the days it used to be so clear, everybody was hustling, but the hustlers disappeared / Now the shots rang out and everybody lives in fear..." the point is well taken -- there has been a kind of death of "community."

K-Gee is also behind the boards for the misogynistic groove "Fat Ass Pam" which may cause some to query why "keeping it real" is always invoked when describing women who "turn tricks", but never the trifling "niggas" who are just as complicit in the activities of the so-called "trick". Williams is behind the boards for one of the project's best songs "New York, NY" which samples Ahmad Jamal and may be one of the best "New York" songs since Kool G Raps's classic "Streets of New York".

Other standouts on Back in Da Days include "5th of Gin", if only because the Muhammad Brothers dared write a song about smoking a blunt, drinking some gin, and "Straight F***ing" before homeboy's parole officer came over to take him "upstate". Logically "Straight F***ing" is also the title of the Charles "Gator" Moore solo, where his voice most closely resembles that of Bobby Womack recalling H-Town's "Knockin' tha Boots", and Teddy P's "Turn Off the Lights". Rashawn Worthen gets his chance to summon the ghost of Soul Men past with his chilling channeling of Al Green -- only Phillpe Wynne did it better -- on the track "A Rainy Night (in Harlem)", the title of which is inspired by the Brook Benton classic (my daddy's favorite) "Rainy Night in Georgia".

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

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image