Tag Archives: En Vogue

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 2: Don’t Let Go – En Vogue

En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers (such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aethetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the girls’ new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.

That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who’s also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. He gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there’s lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenth notes and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.

Lil John Roberts
Lil John Roberts, and his iPod-style bass drum resonant

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Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right

Don’t Mess With My Man – Lucy Pearl

Listening to Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Born Not to Know in 1988, you’d have been hard pressed to guess that the skinny guy playing bass would go on to become perhaps the foremost neo-traditionalist in R&B.

By the time Tony! Toni! Toné! released their debut record, Raphael Saadiq (born Charles Wiggins) had already done a stint (under the name Raphael Wiggins) as bass player in Sheila E’s live band, where he got to observe at close quarters another radical traditionalist by the name of Prince, for whom Sheila E was playing drums as well as opening on tour. But still, Saadiq’s love for loosely grooving old-school R&B and soul was obscured by his band’s adherence to the new jack swing formula.

The clue is in its name. New jack swing was self-conscious about its newness, about its mix of old-fashioned street-corner harmonising and hi-tech drum-machine programming, synth squiggles and sampling. The individual elements of a percussion track on a NJS record were often so complicated and syncopated that it’d be a stretch to imagine a single human drummer ever being able to put them all together and properly recreate it. This was not live-band music: this music was programmed; only the vocals were performed.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time MJ released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making NJS seem somewhat gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch Will Smith in any episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic.

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond soundtrack and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound were the wah-wah guitars of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the girls’ new image looked expensive, their new tracks sounded expensive.

Robinson’s attempt at a solo career never got going, the cultural moment in R&B instead defined by R Kelly and his protégée Aaliyah, by Brandy, Monica, the back-from-nowhere Whitney Houston and the new critic’s favourite Lauryn Hill. And it was about to be seized by Destiny’s Child, still a record away from unleashing their unprovoked shock-and-awe attack on music itself but readying themselves for the fight to come. Robinson, then, was underemployed and so accepted an invitation from Saadiq into his new project with another figure from an earlier age, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, as a late replacement for D’Angelo, who’d just dropped out of the group. The reconfigured trio took the name Lucy Pearl.

Saadiq was now pulling the strings, with no outside writers or producers to tell him what to do, so he could indulge his love for classic soul more than ever before, playing live bass and guitar on his own records in pursuit of a sound that split the difference between hip-hop and Motown. The group only lasted for one album but Saadiq was now on his path. He studied Mark Lewisohn’s book chronicling the Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions. He read everything he could find out about recording methods at Motown. His future solo records would be cut live in one room with a small band, just like it was the sixties again. His attention to detail is remarkable, his execution flawless. But perhaps he made his best music with Lucy Pearl, when he was layering his old-school influences over the foundations laid down by Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

After all, it is not 1965, and never will be again.

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Raphael Saadiq – classic soul, white Tele