April, 2nd: New Music from Bruce Mack and Kelsey Warren (Blak Emoji)
Two of my longtime friends Bruce Mack and
Kelsey Warren have recently released new projects that I’ve been meaning to
write about for a minute. Both of these talented cats I’ve known for years,
having met Bruce in college at Long Island University (more on that later); my man Kelsey and I met in
2009 when he was still working at Piano’s, a popular East Village club. If I’m
not mistaken, he might’ve been playing with Apollo Heights (The Veldt) that
night, but, as with most things concerning hang-out with the Apollo Twins, it’s
all a blur. However, what has always been clear is that these dudes are talented
musicians, conceptualists and songwriters who are always presenting their
future funk rock pop music loving best whether on stage or in the studio.
A multi-instrumentalist, Kelsey’s latest
project is Black Emoji, a band that is inspired by ‘70s pop, ‘80s new wave
(& Prince) and the blare of guitars. They recently released the sizzling EP
Intro, which received a rave review
in the February issue of Bust.https://soundcloud.com/blakemoji
Meanwhile, keyboardist Bruce Mack has
reunited musically with his friend guitarist Kenneth A. Edmonds, a dope-ass
player who I’ve also known since the early 80s when both he and Bruce was schooling me
on so many different artists and musical genres that I hadn’t been exposed to. Which, in 1982, was a lot. A few weeks back, Mack sent me a taste of their most recent
collaborations which includes the Afro-ambient wonderfulness of “Transparent
Matter” and laidback island vibe of “Karma Can Be Long.” I urge you to check
out both of these projects.https://soundcloud.com/buddhabug/3-karma-can-be-long-by-bruce-mack
(3/17/2017) was the birthday of one of my favorite singers Nat King Cole.
Recently, while writing a long short story about an aspiring model coming of
age in 1950s Harlem for an upcoming anthology, I played Cole’s enchanting version
of “Smile” constantly for inspiration. Part of my process involves listening to
lots of music from whatever period I’m writing about and I returned to this
track constantly during the intense three months it took me to construct the 8,000 words first draft.
in February I was at my favorite writer’s colony Palmer/Fredrick Manor when I
finally watched the 1975 film Smile;
the Altmanesque film features Cole’s version over the opening credits. One day
I’ll write an essay about how much I enjoyed that flick, which was written by "The Odd Couple" series scribe Jerry Belson and directed by the underappreciated Michael Ritchie.
“Smile” has a strange history in that silent screen star Charlie Chaplin wrote
the music in 1936 for his film Modern
Times, but the lyrics were not penned until 1954 by John Turner and
Geoffrey Parsons. Of
course, there are many versions of “Smile,” including a stunner by Michael
Jackson, who often said that the song was his favorite, but for my Monopoly
money it’s all about brother Nat.
Head bopping high on the black wave of soul that was Baduizm, my first and only Essence cover story was a piece on Erykah. The publicist Wendy Washington, who had been putting in hard work and heavy lifting with Badu for over a year, and I flew to Los Angeles where Erykah was filming the “Next Lifetime” video. Over a two-day period, I was to roll with the subject, observe and, in the process get the interview; that last part wasn’t easy, but it did finally happen.
I was no stranger to Erykah Badu, having seen her perform a few times at those (now) legendary Soul Café shows and interviewing her for Brooklyn magazine, a now defunct pub that was a decade too early. The day we landed in California, Wendy drove and we got lost somewhere near M.L.K.; luckily we had the advance of Chico DeBarge’s post-jail album Long Time No See in the cassette deck to serve as the soundtrack as we cruised those mean streets. By the time we got to the hotel, I was the biggest Chico DeBarge fan on the planet, but that’s another story.
On the first day of the video shoot (Saturday) the entire posse, which included co-stars Pete Rock, Method Man and Andre 3000, as well as the record company crew, rode in a chartered bus to some strange forest area where there was a log cabin in the woods. Of course, making videos is an all day thang, so between watching the scenes being shot over and over, I hung-out Badu’s flye mother (had a lil crush on mama), puffed with Meth and interviewed the co-stars of the dope neo-soul spectacle. It was also on that trip that I first met Zenobia Simmons.
The next day, after a few nervous breakdowns, the interview finally happened. Thank you, Wendy. Writing the story for Essence, a magazine I’d grown-up with thanks to the reading habits of mom dukes Fran Gonzales and being dragged with her to the beauty parlor, was a wonderful experience. My editor Linda Villarosa was one the best I’ve worked with; hard to believe it’s been twenty years since that album came out. And, while I’m giving shout-outs let me not forgot Gordon Chambers and Yvette Russell, who made it all happen
since I was kid, music and reading have always been two of my passions. In my
Harlem household, the radio was always playing, and there were enough books,
magazines and comics to keep me occupied for hours. Even before I began merging
my two loves -- combined with a third: writing
-- I also enjoyed reading music criticism or essays about jazz, pop and soul
stars; I suppose it started back in the 1970s when I discovered Right On, Creem, 16, Black Star and Rolling Stone. As I got older, I also began seriously diggin’ those
scribes that wrote about music in a different way than just straight reviews,
including the Nik Cohn/Guy Peellaert tome Rock
Dreams and my mom’s copy of Nappy
Edges by Ntozake Shange, who wrote so lyrically about jazz and was another
book I read and re-read constantly.
In the ‘80s,
guided by the literary spirits inside the original St. Mark’s Bookstore, I
discovered writer Al Young when I stumbled upon his wonderful book Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
(1987). Although I’d never heard of Young, I was intrigued by the beautiful
Stephen Henriques watercolor cover illustration of a jazz trio. Flipping through
the trade paperback that was billed as the third volume of Young’s “musical
memoir,” the book was actually a collection of essays and short stories
inspired by various artists, songs or aural situations ranging from Charles
Mingus (a friend of the Young’s, who would become of one his favorite
subjects), Marvin Gaye, Billy Strayhorn, Aretha Franklin and others.
tried to do in these books was take a piece of music and conjure in prose, in
one form or another, what the music meant to me,” Young explained. Not only was
his writing poetic and smart, but his musical taste was diverse as he boogied
from tales of be-bop, Motown pop and girl-group teardrops. Reading Young’s essays
was like listening to the stories of one of my elders as we sat on the back
porch sipping lemonade. His style excited me in the same way that the music
writing of David Henderson, Greg Tate, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, Lisa Jones
and Barry Michael Cooper did during that same period.
weeks, I bought Bodies & Soul and
Kinds of Blue, the earlier books in
Young’s “musical memoirs,” but it was Things
Ain’t What They Used to Be that had the most impact on me as an aspiring
music journalist/ essayist and fiction writer. Twenty-nine years later, I
thought hard about Young’s writing, as well as the various subjects the piece
was inspired by, including my old bass-playing buddy Malcolm, a young cat I
knew back in the day who grew up in 150th between Broadway and
Riverside. Malcolm was a tall, lanky dude with long arms and a giant Afro; he
reminded me of one of the cool guys in an Ernie Barnes painting.
sure how we became friends, but whenever I saw him in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s,
we always talked about music, as well as the progress he was making on his instrument;
he often praised dudes like Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, and he spoke with
such excitement that I just knew (though, admittedly, I’d never heard him play)
that one day he, too, would be one of the best.
I couldn’t play anything, I, like him, was an old-school electric bass funk
head who’d been reared on Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins and Louis Johnson, so
whenever Malcolm and I bumped into each other, we would have these hour-long
our discussions, one could always hear the passion in his voice and see a gleam
in his eyes. However, one day in 1984 (or ’85), I ran into a mutual friend from
the ‘hood who shocked me with a truth I wasn’t ready for. “Yo, did you hear
about Malcolm, man?”
accident, man. He got fucked up pretty badly.”
What the fuck, man?”
broke a bunch of bones and shit. The doctor told him he won’t be able to play
serious?” I was gobsmacked.
moment, the world felt like a very dark place. I tried to imagine how I’d react
if I suddenly lost the ability to read or write. I tried to imagine what it
would be like if a doctor told me I could no longer do the one thing I loved
months later, I ran into Malcolm, who told me himself about his accident and
showed me where there were pins in his arm. In that macho way that men often
portray to one another, Malcolm pretended it wasn’t such a big deal that he’d
never play the bass again. He knew I didn’t believe him, but I held back the
tears, for both of us.
After that day, I may’ve seen Malcolm once
or twice, but he eventually moved away, so I haven’t seen Malcolm in decades. Still,
his story never left my mind. A few years back, while song surfing on YouTube,
I fell into a wonderland of ‘70s funk (Bootsy Collins, Sly Stone, Ohio Players)
that made me think about my old friend and the car crash that changed his life.
Taking a few tokes of my peace pipe, which often serves as a tiny time machine,
I sat down at the computer and knocked-out the first draft of my funk fiction “Under the Influence
of a Groove." The story was written as a tribute to my old friend as well as the many other bass playing mavericks that rocked my world and opened-up my earholes.
this year, I became friendly with movie expert and Art Decades publisher Jeremy Richey. Along with his wife, Kelley,
they produce one of the smartest and smartly designed magazines I’ve seen in
years. Having contributed an essay to the special David Bowie issue that was Art Decades #7, I was very impressed
when I saw the magazine, as it reminded me of old-school publications like Evergreen Review, View or the ‘90s U.K. journal Modern
Review, which billed itself as "Low culture for high-brows."
reason, I thought about the funk fiction piece that was gathering computer dust
on my hard drive. After doing a slight remix, I sent the story to Jeremy, and
he replied a few days later saying that he dug it deeply and was going to
publish it in the next Art Decades issue,
#8. A few months later, when he sent me the opening page (see above) I knew my
story had found the perfect home. I’d like to thank the Art Decades folks, as well as writer Al Young, whose masterful ThingsAin’t What They Used to Be helped put me on the path of writing
more personally and deeply about music.
In the fall of 1965, when Dawn Rodgers was fifteen years old, the sleek boogie of Motown music had been as vital to her existence as blood and water. Living in a regal Harlem building on a 116th Street and 8th Avenue, Dawn had converted her girly bedroom into a soulful shrine of her favorite singers: countless seven-inch 45s were sprawled on the carpeted floor, and Ebony magazine pictures of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder and The Supremes hung on the white wall.
Across the room, on top of an antique dresser, was the blue record player that had been a Christmas gift from Dawn’s father before his sudden death from a heart attack two years ago.
When she first unwrapped the present, it reminded her of a magical, aqua hued jewel box. With its mono-speaker and hard cover, the record player was her most prized possession.
On the weekend, Dawn and her lanky girlfriend Barbara Jean played the records repeatedly, dancing like American Bandstand regulars as their wavy press combed hair flipped.
As Barbara Jean belted “ooohhs and aaahhs” in the background, Dawn grabbed a broomstick from closet and strained her vocal chords singing lead on “Baby Love,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Where Did Our Love Go” and other soon to be classic tracks.
Yet, since buying the sweet swoon of “My Girl” from Shadow’s Record Store-the first record Dawn had bought-the sweet song held a special place in her heart. As Barbara’s charm bracelets jiggled, Dawn perfectly pantomimed those silky moves.
On those school days when Dawn was finished with her homework, she scoped the smooth skinned older boy singers who sloughed on the stoop and sang beneath the dim street lamp outside the living-room window.
With their conked hair and starched slacks, those slick boys slurped sodas and sang about roaming Romeos until dusk.
“Girl, you better get your face out of that window and into those books,” Dawn’s mother Amy scolded one autumn afternoon. Styling a sky-high beehive and lush lashes, Amy puffed on a Marlboro.
With wide-hips and thin waist, she stood in front of the curtained French doors; when the doors were closed, it was damn near impossible to hear another sound. Dawn wasn’t aware of her mother had been observing her for a few minutes
Dawn and her mom had once shared a special bond that faded with each birthday. Many years had passed since they had played in the playground sandbox or dressed identically on Easter morning. Though the death of her father should have brought them closer, it seemed to make her mother that much more neurotic.
“Girl, don’t make come in there and snatch you up,” Amy yelled. Her mom made a pretty penny as the proprietor of the Smart Set Beauty Shop.
However, since it was a Monday, the shop was closed.
“Damn,” Dawn mumbled. She had hoped to see the singing man of her fantasies, a conked head boy named Miles Fontaine. Everyday, she anticipated the moment that slick heart breaker would slink around the corner and connect with his rhythmic street-corner crew.
A sharp dressed dude whose shoes were never snuffed, Miles had a smoky voice that was smoother than her panties. Even though he and Dawn didn’t know one another, Miles often glanced-up at Dawn’s third floor window and grinned.
At nineteen, his gleaming smile was perfect, as was the square jaw that was the foundation of a clean-shaven, light-skinned face. Whenever Miles wore his stylish black-framed glasses, Dawn thought he looked exactly like “a lighter version of David Ruffin from The Temptations.”
In Dawn’s mind, she believed Miles possessed a princely charm that only she could see.
With her curvy figure and shoulder length ponytail, Dawn was too old for children’s games and too young for grown folks business. In her teenage mind, it didn’t matter that Miles was much too old for a girl who wouldn’t be able to date for another year. Feeling Amy’s penetrating eyes on her back, Dawn slinked out of the window and flopped on the plastic slip covered couch.
While the weekdays were devoted to schoolwork and household chores, come Saturday morning Dawn was down at the Smart Set helping her mother.
“That girl just keep getting so big,” observed Millard Jones, one of Amy’s oldest customers. “Seems like yesterday I was giving the child lollipops from my purse.”
“As long as she keeps her head up, her eyes in a book and her legs closed, I’ll be happy,” Amy replied. Pretending not to listen, Dawn swept-up hair, set the dryers and ordered lunch for the gossiping flock.
As was Amy’s habit, at four o’clock she handed Dawn three crisp dollar bills for her allowance. Tossing the stained smock on top of a shelf, Dawn said, “I’ll be back. I’m going down to Shadow’s.” Not that it was news, because Dawn went to Shadow’s Record Emporium every Saturday afternoon.
“Can’t keep them young folks away from their music,” Millard said.
“Just don’t be down there all day,” Amy said. “I have other things for you to do around her.”
“Alright, ma,” Dawn answered, carefully watching her tone of voice; a slip of the lip was all Dawn needed for her mother to snatch back the money or pop her in the mouth.
Dressed in a her blue Fall sweater, white button down shirt, jeans and matching Pro-Keds sneakers, Dawn ran the five blocks past rooming houses and number holes, liquor shops and soul food shacks. As visions of shiny discs spun in her head, Dawn barely paid attention to the roar of the world around her.
Nearing Shadow’s, she sped around the corner at St. Nicholas Avenue and slammed into a hard body exiting a men’s shoe store.
Crashing to the ground, Dawn’s head banged on the sidewalk. Lying still, she groaned and tried to regain her bearings. Rubbing her skull, blood trickled from the wound.
“Are you alright?” a soothing voice asked. With her eyes still closed, Dawn struggled to stand until she felt a reassuring touch on her shoulder. “You really shouldn’t move until the ambulance gets here.”
Squinting through barbecue smoke simmering from a nearby restaurant, it took awhile for Dawn to see clearly. The moment her blurry vision finally focused, she saw Miles’ face hovering in front of her.
Yet, before Dawn was able to utter a word, a thundercloud exploded in her head. Seconds later, the slight concession caused her to faint completely.
Between the hardness of the concrete and the softness of the hospital bed, Dawn’s mind be-bopped through a dreamscape where she and Miles sailed on a chocolate-flavored sea. With a tender voice, Miles serenaded her with a sweet love song.
Moments later, the dream lover gently touched her bare shoulder and kissed her quivering lips.
Days after recovering from the accident, Dawn noticed a slight change in her mother’s behavior. It began the morning when the usually stern faced Amy strolled past the stove smiling and melodically humming ‘My Girl.’ Startled by Amy’s blissful demeanor, Dawn stared longingly as her moms fluttered through the kitchen like a nightingale.
Sitting down at the Formica table, Amy smiled at her bemused daughter. Pouring orange juice into a blue glass, Amy asked, “Are you sure you’re well enough to go to school? Maybe you should stay home another day or so.”
Dawn noticed a musical lilt to Amy’s voice. Not since Dawn’s daddy had died, had her mom sound so happy.
“It’s just strange,” Dawn explained to her girlfriend Barbara Jean as the two trooped towards their small Catholic school building. Both girls were dressed in white blouses, gray plaid skirts and black shoes. If they were even a minute late, sadistic Sister Regis would make them do detention.
Bending down to buckle her shoe in front of Jesse’s Candy Shop, a cool breeze caressed Dawn’s face.
“Maybe she thought when you got the concussion you were going to die or something. You know how mothers are when something bad happens to their babies.”
Dawn pushed open the steel and glass door. Swathed in the store’s Hershey chocolate warmth and fumes of fresh brewed coffee, they greeted the overweight owner. Overcome by a yearning for chocolate, Dawn stood in front of the glass counter and stared at the gleaming silver wrapped Kisses.
“Yeah,” Dawn agreed, sliding ten-cents across the counter. “You’re right. I’m just being goofy. It’s just weird to hear Miss Mean Jeans suddenly being so nice. And, to top it off, honey is humming Motown songs.”
Barbara Jean giggled, and glanced at her Timex wristwatch. “Just wait for a couple more days, I bet she’ll be right back to her regular self,” she said. “Now hurry-up before Sister Regis has us standing on our tiptoes for an hour or something crazy.”
Although Dawn didn’t bring up the subject again, Amy’s slight change had developed into a full-blown transformation. With a wiggle in her walk, Amy bought a few tight skirts that enhanced her shapely behind.
In the past, while Amy had always come straight home after closing the beauty shop, she was now “stopping for cocktails at the O’Neal’s” or “going to the movies at Loews's Paramount Theater.” Coming home slightly intoxicated, Amy sang sweet soul songs under her peppermint-scented breath.
Later that afternoon, Dawn sat in the classroom staring at the dusty blackboard when she a developed an aching headache. “Is your mother home today?” Sister Regis asked. Knowing the details of her slight concussion, the nun thought it would be best to send Dawn home.
“Yes, Sister,” Dawn answered, rubbing her forehead. After a year at St. Catherine’s you would think these nuns would remember that her mother owned a beauty shop, Dawn thought. Everybody in Harlem knows that beauty shops are closed on Monday.
“I’ll call and tell her you don’t feel well. Barbara Jean can bring your homework.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Dawn replied, gathering her books.
Nearing her block at one o’clock, Dawn wondered what had happened to Miles and the rest of his singing buddies. “I suppose it’s been a little chilly,” she reasoned, but I still haven’t seen him since the accident. Of course, that hadn’t stopped her from scribbling Miles’ name in her three-ring binder or in the margins of her textbooks.
Slowly, Dawn climbed the tarnished marble steps to her apartment. From behind the closed doors of her neighbor’s flats, she heard crying babies and the theatrical voices of soap opera stars. Yet, standing in front of her doorway, Dawn didn’t hear a sound.
Maybe ma went to laundry or something, she thought. Pushing open the metal door, Dawn dropped her coat and school bag on the foyer floor. Walking quietly across the carpet, Dawn headed towards the living room.
Standing in front of the French doors, she was surprised to hear the dreamy voices of The Temptation’s “My Girl” streaming from the blue portable hi-fi her dead father had given her.
Hesitating, Dawn slowly pulled back the multicolored curtains and peered through the door’s small window.
Blinking, she stared, stunned and paralyzed by the wicked image of her mother and Miles lustfully entwined on the sticky couch. Oblivious to the world, their naked bodies rhythmically moved to the music.
A few feet away, Dawn’s record player rested on top of the wooden coffee table.
Dawn’s eyes jumped frantically from the blue record player to the couch. Dawn’s fragile emotions cracked, and wanted to shatter the French door’s windows with her bare fist.
Sniffling, she wiped tears from her eyes as a thousand blue record players blared in her head. Crying, Dawn watched with disgusted fascination as the sweaty bodies of Miles and her mother slithered to the hardwood floor. Eyes closed, they swam in the sea of love while The Temptations continued to sing.
Before Dawn was even aware of her own movements, she had run down the stairs. Standing in front of the silver street pole where she had first seen Miles, a cold wind caused her to shiver.
Staring upwards at her living-room, either her mother or Miles had snapped on end-table lamp. Still crying, Dawn silently vowed never
As a brown sugar toking D’Angelo fan who has been digging his sonic voodoo since seeing him jam live that memorably crazy night in 1995 when he played the Supper Club for his debut album release party, for me the release of Black Messiah on December 15 was an early Christmas present that stayed in constant rotation throughout my holiday season spent in Baltimore. “Don’t you want to listen to something else?” my Baltimore host (and former Village Voice jazz critic) Don Palmer asked.
Standing in the kitchen, I’d already played Black Messiah twice since arriving a few hours before. Looking at Don, I smiled and simply answered, “Nope.” I was thrilled that D’Angelo’s team was able to finally deliver Black Messiah to the world as the first Christmas miracle in centuries. It was an album as complexly layered, bugged-out and soulful as I’d hoped, but the Newport puffing southern man had also brought along guitarist/singer/producer Jesse Johnson for his magical mystery journey into sound.
Two months later, seeing Johnson performing alongside D’Angelo and his fellow Vanguard posse this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, especially on the second number “Charade,” where both he and D were able to get into some rock star guitar theatrics, was equally as special. All incognegro in his winter hat and shades, perhaps the getup was Johnson’s way of forging his own identity on stage or the set was really that brick. Regardless, his playing sounded splendid.
Back in 2011, I interviewed Jesse Johnson in Philadelphia on MLK Day in the living-room of our mutual friend and radio personality Dyana Williams. Over a light lunch and Perrier, the former pink suit wearing Johnson told me he was in the studio with D’Angelo. Although vague on exactly what kind of aural tests they were conducting in the lab, Johnson hinted modestly, “We’re just fooling around. I’m not really sure where D is going with it, but I love working with him.
“The only problem is I don’t smoke, but everything I take to the studio now smells like a cigarettes. We’ve played together on a bunch of stuff. He’ll play bass or drums or I’ll play bass. We just jam and record to get licks and things.” Thankfully for both the new jacks and the old heads fans, Johnson was willing to make the smoky sacrifice in the name of Black art, muddy soul, singing in tongues and a little brimstone thrown into the mix.
While neither D’Angelo nor Jesse has spoken publicly on the process of their years in the making collaboration, I assume D learned a few things from the man that the press still keeps referring to as guitarist for The Time as though he never released a few dope solo joints of his own beginning with his 1985 album Jesse Johnson Revue (the bridge between Ernie Isley and Vernon Reid) up to his underrated bluesy excursion Bare My Naked Soul in 1996 and the rock-soul militancy of Verbal Penetration in 2009.
Back in the early 1990s, when so-called “realness” began reigning supreme over rap music, most anyone not subscribing to the sinister outlook of street narratives was perceived as a fake punk just asking for a beat down. The equivalent of young Black kids being teased by their peers for “talking white,” the rules of rap realness kept the music as grimy as possible, caught up in a trick bag of ghetto demands. Real men, according to macho hip-hop mythology, represented and rapped about the streets, their honey booty sweeties and “playing the game” with the precision of hustler.
Unable to be merely content doing their own thing, some artists were determined to tear down any aural agitators who dared not to embrace the soiled imagery of crack infested buildings, pissy projects staircases and dope boys slinging rock on park benches until the break of dawn. While a few bohemian crews, namely De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and whoever else was down with the Native Tongues, was given a ghetto pass, perhaps because they socialized at the same spots (Union Square, The World) or recorded at the same studios.
Without a doubt, many hardcore hip-hop fans never really gave P.M. Dawn a chance. With their hippy clothes, surreal lyricism and Dr. Strange personas that reeked of Black mysticism and white witchcraft, P.M. Dawn wasn’t hanging in deathtrap hip-hop clubs, banging out beats on abandoned cars or worried about their baby mamma’s hounding them for child support. Indeed, as Prince Be later explained on the hypnotic single “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine” (1992), “What is real, a positive plane, reality and life are not the same.”