Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Big Picture: The Music of Michael Jackson


— With the release of the much-anticipated Michael Jackson film This Is It coming on October 28, perhaps folks can finally step away from the television gossip programs and pay attention to what made the King of Pop special in the first place: brilliant songs combined with hypnotic performance skills.

Having last seen Jackson rock a screaming audience back in 1989 on the Bad tour, I still remember the blissful faces of the fans staring in awe and cheering as he cast a spell of pure showmanship. While it was obvious that Jackson put in hours of rehearsal, on stage his flow was effortless. Sliding from one step into another as the music built, Michael Jackson was enchanting and beautiful, electric and dangerous.

Yet, since his death this past June, Jackson’s aural brilliance and extraordinary body of work has been overshadowed by the singer’s bizarre life.

For the rest of this story, go to:

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Reel Harlem...

Just finished writing a long essay on the making of the Curtis Mayfield's celebrated Superfly soundtrack for Wax Poetics Issue 38. Featuring interviews with composer Curtis Mayfield, arranger Johnny Pate, guitarists Phil Upchurch, Craig McCullen, Jean Paul Bourelly, actor/director Fred Williamson and writers Barry Michael Cooper and Darius James, the tentatively titled "Gangster Boogie: Curtis Mayfield and the Makings of Superfly," delves deep into the ruins of '70s Harlem as the perfect backdrop for blaxploitation dreams and the fueling the soulful genius of a man called Mayfield.

From the streets of Sugarhill to the studios of Chicago, this dynamite story has a plan to stick it to the man. Seriously though, when we get closer to the release date I'll write a little more about the behind scenes chaos, drama and talent that went into creating this enduring album.

Yet, I will admit since listening to the Superfly soundtrack about five hundred times while writing this explosive story (cue wah-wah), I really don't need to hear it again for a year or two. For now, let me just do a visual homage to a few of the Harlem flicks that helped shape my own urban outlaw aesthetic. As my homeboy Richard Pryor used to say, "You messin' with the kid baby...shieeeeeeeeeeeet!"


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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Unsung Soul Man Leroy Hutson

Not sure if you're down with windy city singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Leroy Hutson, but he is one of my favorite unsung soul men. A native of Newark, New Jersey, brother Hutson went to Howard University with Donny Hathaway (whom he collaborated with on the classic track "The Ghetto") and Roberta Flack. In 1971, he was hired by Curtis Mayfield to replace him in the Impressions. However, at the time, not everyone was pleased.

"I remember being pissed when the line-up changed," late journalist and friend Tom Terrell once told me. "I had bought tickets to see the Impressions perform at the Howard Theater and when Hutson came on stage instead of Mayfield, I like...'Who the hell is this?' Yet, like other R&B fans, Terrell was soon swayed by Hutson's passionate voice. Two years later, Hutson also went solo.

Somehow I went my entire childhood having never heard of Hutson, but a chance encounter with the greatest hits package Lucky Fellow, The Best of Leroy Hutson (Charly Records) was the turning point. Though I bought the a disc simply because it was associated with Mayfield's funk house Curtom Records, whose roster included Baby Huey & the Babysitters and Linda Clifford, it was Hutson's cool sound that blew me away. Not many cats can sound laid-back and aggressive at the same time, but Hutson's voice and music was icy hot.

Recently, while working on a story about Curtis Mayfield, I was talking to guitarist extraordinaire Craig McMullen (dude played ax with Hutson, Chairman of the Board, The Sylvers, Bill Withers and Mayfield) who informed me that he'd soon be going out on the road with the unsung singer. Hopefully, they'll be at a venue near us.

All Because of You:

Lucky Fellow:

So in Love With You:

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Nights on Broadway (Introduction)

Illustration by Larry Scott

“Nights on Broadway” is a hip-hop story in every sense of the word. Not only does it take place in the world of graffiti during the years that Kool Herc and company were creating new sounds from old records, but it is also a remixed version of another story I wrote a few years ago. Entitled “The King of Broadway,” it originally ran on the provocative Afro-arts website Nat in 2005.

Although the stories are relatively the same, the major difference was adding the blue-eyed soul element of the Bee Gee’s song “Nights on Broadway” to this New York tale of school kids in 1970s Harlem and Washington Heights. Growing-up in these same areas during that same period, the funky white boy groove was one of my favorite jams.

Hearing the track one night in a Brooklyn bar thirty years later, memories of former pop station WABC and school friends from St. Catherine of Genoa made me want to revisit my story. It was then that I decided to do a textual remix in the tradition Grandmaster Flash, Marley Marl, DJ Premier Rza and DJ Shadow—just to name a few.

Without a doubt, these master turntablists had been an influence on my writings as much as the countless writers, journalists and filmmakers I consume on a daily. In my mind, doing a cool remix of an existing story was a way of paying homage to the sonic scientists who introduced me to the concepts of Black futurism, deconstruction and the rhythmic power of noise. Though I am proud of both pieces, it is the remixed version that I prefer.

The beautiful illustrations for this story were done by the late Baltimore artist Larry Scott. A fellow Cancerian, we met at a coffee shop called Xandos, which was across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Introduced by New Jack City screenwriter and former Harlem resident Barry Michael Cooper, who had relocated to B-more in the ‘80s, Scott and I became fast friends.

Art critic and curator Franklin Sirmans was one of the many folks turned out by Scott’s work. Reviewing the artist’s 2005 show “Evolution of Depression,” he wrote, “The drawings almost feel like he’s working 3-D constructing forms with the line. Then there’s the almost abstraction of the work. The thing that hooks me is the simplicity/complexity of the black and whites..they just look mad original and damn good.”

The same year, the alternative weekly The City Paper voted Scott the Best Visual Artists in Baltimore. A few months after his show, I asked Larry if he would be kind enough to add his visual brilliance to my story. Without hesitation, he promised to give me something in a few days.

Though Larry wasn’t of the hip-hop generation, having grown-up a fan of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he had recently began listening to Tupac, Biggie and 50 Cent and using their gritty poetics to jump-off a new series called “Ready to Die…?”

Come the following Friday, when Larry told me to meet at the usual spot at six o’clock, I was shocked when he gave me an envelope containing twelve separate pen and ink drawings. Though not an art expert, I know what I like and Larry’s work had an effect on me. Like German-Expressionism, film noir and East Coast hip-hop, Scott’s work had a sense of urbane despair that embraced the decadence and danger of the city.

Studying his masterfully atmospheric drawings, I almost cried at the sheer perfection in which Scott captured the pain and joy, laughter and anguish of these characters. Flipping through the dozen related images, one could feel the power of Scott’s vision as he created his own flavor of be-bop/beat-box visualizations.

Although we often spoke of future collaborations, this was not to be. In November of 2007, after leaving the coffee shop portfolio in hand, Larry Scott suffered a fatal heart attack. His body was found sprawled on the sidewalk the following morning. A husband and father, Larry Scott was 50 years old. This remix is dedicated to him and the beauty of his work.

To read the story, go to:

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