Tag Archives: hip-hop

It’s Funky Enough – The D.O.C.

Y’all ready for this?

Yeah, this is where that sample (the one enthusiastically embraced by 2 Unlimited) comes from: the Diggy Diggy Doc’s 1989 single It’s Funky Enough, the first track from his Dre-produced debut, No One Can Do It Better.

The album was an unsurprising success for Ruthless Records, as the D.O.C. (born Tracy Lynn Curry) was already a big name among deep fans of West Coast hip hop. He’d been a member of the Fila Fresh Crew in Dallas before making his way to LA, where he met and began working with Andre Young, himself not long out of the World Class Wrecking Cru. When NWA became stars, Curry’s star rose with them. The D.O.C. was never a member of NWA, but he was a frequently referenced figure in their songs, and it was an open secret that he’d written a large proportion of the group’s lyrics; he was credited on some songs, but much of what was credited to Eazy-E was actually the D.O.C.’s work, too.

It’s Funky Enough is derived from Foster Sylvers’ 1973 hit Misdemeanor, released when Sylvers was just 11 years old. It doesn’t sound to me like a sample though. Whatever the vocalist is singing (lyric sites insist on “it’s funky, it’s funky”), it’s not what Foster Sylvers sang (“Love traps, setbacks”), and the riff never appears in Misdemeanor without Sylvers singing on top. It sounds to me like, Rapper’s Delight-style, Dre had regular collaborator Stan Jones actually play the song’s riff on bass and guitar for him (either that or he added guitar, bass and drum programming on top of the sample of the Sylvers track to beef it up, then got World Class Wrecking Cru singer Michel’le to record over Foster Sylvers’ sampled vocal to bury it).  Either way, it’s a great production from Dre, with loads of interest: my favourite elements are the tinkly percussion in the right speaker and the little stuttering kick variation that appears during the “It’s getting funky!” breakdowns.

With such a strong track to work off, the D.O.C. can hardly contain himself. His exuberance is completely infectious. His delivery is forceful rather than elegant, but you can’t help getting swept along with him, and he drops more than his share of quotable lines. My favourite is probably:

Enunciate well
So that you can tell
I am not illiterate
No, not even a little bit
Nothing like an idiot
Get it?

But there’s gold in every verse; his delivery of “I want all chairs off the floor/And if he stands to the wall/Show him the door” is worth the price of admission on its own.

Calling your first album No One Can Do it Better was a boast, a youthful provocation; the D.O.C. was still only 21 when the album dropped in August 1989. Sadly, he never got a chance to prove that it was really true. Later that year he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car (he was by his own admission drunk and high; that same night he was let off a DUI by police who’d seen the gold records on his backseat). He slammed into a central reservation barrier, was thrown through his car window and ended up in a tree. His teeth were nearly all knocked out and he was taken to hospital, where his vocal cords were severely damaged while the doctors tried to insert a tube in his throat as he struggled with them. A later operation to remove the scar tissue, aimed at enabling him to return to performing, made the situation worse, with his voice left permanently weak and raspy.

Today, Curry claims that, the way he was living at the time, he probably wouldn’t still be alive if it hadn’t been for that accident. This may be true. Yet the damage to his larynx was a huge blow to his career. His damaged voice, robbed of its power and malleability (and physically painful for him to produce), was only really workable in certain sonic contexts: while it sounded appropriately creepy and sepulchral over a Cypress Hill-style backing, it no longer worked for the style of music that had made his name and in which he excelled so effortlessly. Nearly thirty years later, he has the rep and the money from his work with NWA, but his story remains a sad one, a story of what might have been.

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In the Meantime – Helmet

Helmet were a band apart in their prime. East Coast, not West. Cerebral and detached compared to their Seattle peers, yet capable of the same volcanic aggression. Often labelled ‘avant metal’ by critics, but having nothing in common with commercial pop-metal, and only a passing similarity to thrash. Helmet, then, didn’t fit neatly in anyone else’s box. They seem in retrospect to have been fathers to the heavier math-rock bands. Listen to the way drummer John Stanier changes time from four beats to three under the repeating riff during the middle section of In the Meantime – all of math rock is there, in the same way that all of surrealism is in the first three lines of ‘Prufrock’.

They are, however, a hard band to love. Page Hamilton, Helmet’s singer, songwriter and guitar player, often comes over prickly and defensive in interviews, trying to convince the world to see his music the same way he sees it: as derived from his jazz guitar studies. Hence the reading of the standard Beautiful Love from Betty, which changes suddenly from a clean solo guitar playing in a chord-melody style to squonky heavy rock that seemingly bears no resemblance to the jazz guitar still playing softly in the right-hand speaker. It’s a curious beast, not really a hybrid, more of a superimposition (Hamilton is apt to talk about such concepts in interviews, so conceivably that might have been the point).

Clever though this have been, the band were always at their best when their ferocity was tightly focused, and so their finest moment remains In the Meantime, the near-title track of their album Meantime, released in 1992. Meantime was their first major label record. The band had been the subject of a bidding war the previous year; with labels desperate to find the next Nirvana, industry eyes had simultaneously lighted on a group on Amphetamine Reptile that had the right guitar sound and attitude.

In the Meantime is a furious song, beginning with drummer John Stanier rolling around his toms and bashing his cymbals, while Hamilton makes squealing tremolo-picked noise. Then, over a held D, Stamier plays half-time on the hats while stomping out a syncopated hip-hop kick drum beat. The band then drop in with the song’s main riff, over the same beat as before, before the rhythm section shift to simpler pattern, which Hamilton syncopates against with one D chord. This same feel will power the verses along, but before the first verse has even started, they’ve burned through enough cool ideas to keep many bands going for a whole song.

Key to all this, of course, is John Stanier, now in the experimental rock group Battles, who record for Warp. His reputation as a powerful and inventive drummer is even higher today than it was twenty years ago, but even then he was grabbing the ears of the Modern Drummer crowd. He is typical of a generation of American drummers who have hands schooled in the marching-band tradition and a bass-drum foot schooled by hip-hop. His complex, busy kick drum work throughout In the Meantime is a masterclass. I imagine it’s somewhat galling to Page Hamilton that his old band is known to a generation of kids as the band that the Battles guy with the really high cymbal* used to be in.

Hamilton is fond of saying that Helmet’s heavy rock swings**, but really I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Stanier tends to swing more nowadays with Battles. Twenty years ago, playing heavy rock with his left hand and hip-hop with his right foot, he was more machine-like. Certainly he had less of that back-of-the-beat feel that, say, Matt Cameron had, let alone rock drummers of an earlier era (Levon Helm or Ringo, say). Music that swings feels good. Listening to Helmet is designed to make you feel tense, clenched. If Helmet had swung, they wouldn’t have been so heavy, so claustrophobic. They’re not too well known in their own right now, and Hamilton can never resist an invitation to intellectualise, recontextualise and justify the music he made twenty years ago***, but In the Meantime is one of the greatest records of its era, and you don’t have to listen hard or long to hear their influence on later heavy rock bands of all kinds.

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Helmet live, early 1990s. Photo by Bill Keaggy

 

* Stanier plays with a crash cymbal around seven feet in the air: Modern Drummer: What’s with the super-high crash? John Stanier: I didn’t want any cymbals but the hi-hats at first. Then I was like, “Okay, I’ll use one,” but I didn’t want it near me because I’d use it too much. So I set it high so I’d have to work to get to it. I wanted it to be significant; I use it as a marker. It’s like a master reset button when I go to the cymbal. Plus, it looks cool.

** ‘I’ve had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, “Helmet’s the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There’s a groove to it”.’ Interview with Page Hamilton, Invisible Oranges

***’Then my manager tells me James Hetfield said Helmet is one of his top five bands of all time and you’ve had Elton John and David Bowie say that they love your band. Musicians are still inspired by what you are doing.’ Interview with Page Hamilton by Justin M. Norton, About.com; ‘So many musicians like the band – and I’m talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there’s this other musical mind at work in there. It’s not just hardcore, it’s not just metal. It’s got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it’s interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, “I told you you were going to influence me”.’

Cowboys – Portishead

In 1994, Portishead went from being cutting edge to something dangerously close to a punch line within six months. The band had formed in Bristol, a collaboration between producer and DJ Geoff Barrow, who had worked as an assistant engineer on (fellow Bristolians) Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines, and singer Beth Gibbons, who sang jazz and R&B in a local gigging band, augmented by a sympathetic jazz guitarist of Barrow’s acquaintance – a man called Adrian Utley, who was tired of playing Radio Two sessions and cruise ships and was looking for some music that would stretch him, that was a little meatier.

The three of them crafted an atmospheric sound, influenced as much by film noir as hip-hop (although it was very clearly a post-hip-hop construction), using scratchy and distorted samples, low-bpm beats and jazz-influenced vocals (all sung). The press soon coined a name for this new type of music: trip-hop.

Urgh.

Portishead, whose music was undeniable very stylish and modish and ‘now’, deeply resented having their emotional and heartfelt work reduced to this ghastly buzzword. They had to endure hearing their songs get co-opted by TV music supervisors everywhere. You couldn’t switch on the telly without hearing snatches of Sour Times, Glory Box or Numb used under trailers and station bumpers. Dummy soundtracked North London dinner parties every night of week. Outright imitations (Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps) started to garner hit single. Programmed or sampled drum tracks influenced by their style started to turn up on mainstream singer-songwriter records. Their music, and moreover their style of music, was dangerously over-exposed. The whole thing made the band, and particularly Geoff Barrow, ill. They lay low for a while, then purposely made a second record too dark and unfriendly to be embraced by the mainstream.

Yet for all their good intentions, that album, Portishead, was a disappointment. The black-and-white high contrast of Dummy had been replaced by an unyielding grey. Gibbons’ vocals, now unvaryingly woebegone, sounded forced, the pain and misery alluded to in her lyrics rote. The album, in the end, wasn’t actually different enough to Dummy – it just took the more melancholy elements of their sound and dispensed with the seductive melodies, the empathy and warmth, and flashes of black humour (the slowed-down Johnnie Ray sample from Biscuit, for example) that, laid over heavily compressed beats and scratchy basslines, had been so compelling three years before.

But at a show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York something alchemical happened. Joined by an orchestra of some 40 players, a keyboardist (John Baggot) and a live rhythm section to give the songs a kick up the backside, tracks that had sounded flat on the album came alive on stage. None more so than Cowboys. Utley’s grindy guitar, played down on the album version, was now way up front and in the listener’s face. Gibbons’ distorted vocal sounded more eerily Cruella de Vil-like than ever before and hardly-there drones from the orchestra hovered over the whole thing like gathering stormclouds.

Perhaps Barrow had worked on the songs for the second album too long and the spontaneity had been lost. Maybe they’d sought perfection in uniformity rather than feel. Possibly they went past the mix on some of the album’s tracks. But almost every song from the second album they played at the New York show was improved by performance (conversely, every song from Dummy was diminished – the slowed-down, bell-less reading of Sour Times was a misjudged disaster).

Taken together Portishead and the Roseland NYC live record remain a fascinating pair – neither wholly satisfying, but each enriching the other. There’s much good music on Third but the band’s masterpiece remains Dummy, a record that seems to me to be rather undervalued today, dismissed as a bit fluffy, even. Nonsense. It’s still magnificent, twenty years on.

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Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons

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