February 10, 1978 was the day when a certain album hit the streets for the very first time but it was what happened on the following day that matters more to me.
Saturday, February 11, 1978. I was 7 years old and one reason I’m at Ala Moana Shopping Center was because it’s a Saturday, I wouldn’t be at the mall if it was a weekday, I didn’t have those type of luxuries or freedoms and neither did most other 7 years old. My mom and dad went shopping and as was the norm, I found myself in the music section at any store that had them but in this case, I was at a record store named DJ’s Sound City. Imagine a 7-year old just looking and browsing normally in the rock, soul, or jazz section. Sometimes I’d browse for something to see while other times, I just wanted to see cool covers. As I’m standing, browsing through and going through the racks. All of a sudden, I hear a sound getting louder, what reminds me of traffic, as if cars or trucks were coming my way. It was loud but I thought it was very cool and I had no idea what it was.
Then this beefy bass guitar takes a stroll and then a minor brushing or stroke of the guitar neck happens. Then a guitar riff is being played. I’m standing there, hands to records and I’m going “what is this?” Then the singer begins, he sounds like a cool and mellow guy and all of a sudden, he begins screaming. I don’t know if I began to smile or smirk as a way to describe how cool it was.
A few minutes later, a song that has a guitar solo begins. I was already a fan of hard rock, I knew of Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and Kiss but they sounded nothing like what I was listening to. This was mind-blowing and I didn’t know how to describe it. The song was nothing but a 105 guitar blitz. This was not Ace Frehley, this was not Tony Iommi, this was not Joe Perry. Again, I’m 7 years old and it felt like my head was being filmed with so much unknown. I honestly didn’t look around to see how everyone else was reaction to what we were listening to, I was in my own world as if I was in my own bedroom, wanting to dwell into this new sound.
Then came song #3. I don’t know if I already knew “You Really Got Me”, not sure if I even knew of The Kinks just yet. I know oldies songs was something I heard on a regular basis on the radio and at that point, the original song was close to being 14 years old. I just knew it was an older song and that guitar was uncontrolled, the howls and screams from David Lee Roth was kinda trippy. Then my mom called for me and said it’s time for me to go but I had to do one thing first.
As I walked to the front of the door, I walked to the right and I knew where the record player was, I had to find out who it was. I saw the black cover with four guys on it but I wanted to look at the record label. It was the Burbank, California trees, which meant this record was on Warner Bros. I had enough records or access to records on Warner Bros. so I was knowing about labels at this point. I knew the first time I heard Black Sabbath was on the green Warner Bros. label. Later that year, when Funkadelic released One Nation Under A Groove, the label turned into a new beige/tan label with horizontal lines so for me, early 1978 was still the Burbank trees but by the time I was beginning the 3rd grade, Warner Bros. had a brand new label variation. New label, new era, new phrase. Yet those Burbank trees was the ID and I had to know so I could buy the album but did I get it, even ask for it as a Christmas gift? No.
The funny thing is as I write did, did I actually listen to “Eruption” and “You Really Got Me” at DJ’s Sound City that morning or afternoon? A part of me wants to say yes but I’m still uncertain, it could be a collection of stories I gathered as I discovered the album and listened to it in time. My Uncle David was the guitarist of the family and while he loved his Pat Travers, Yngwie Malmsteem, Rudolf Schenker and John McLaughlin, getting into Eddie Van Halen for the first time was a trip for a guy who could’ve been my older brother. He was 16 when the first Van Halen album was released so I could only imagine what his mind was like when he first heard them. Which leads us to this: did I really hear “Eruption” and “You Really Got Me” at the record store?
However, I clearly remember hearing “Running With The Devil”, I fully remember walking to the front of the record store, walking to the right, looking and being tall enough to see the turntable, the cover next to it and the Burbank trees, I forever remember it as something that meant something to me.
In my lifetime, there are many musical first and people talk about them. Some will say it’s hard to remember a time before but I clearly remember a time before Nirvana’s Nevermind, a time before Madonna’s “Holiday”, a time before Prince came out with “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, and existence before hip-hop. I’m glad to say I remember a childhood before Van Halen’s self-titled debut album. My introduction to hard rock and heavy metal was through Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Kiss, and Alice Cooper and as vulgar as the music was and as offensive as Grandma Book made it out to be (she called Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” the work of the devil and knew I would become satanic and go to hell because I played it on her phonograph without permission), I loved it. I was listening to music by Paul Simon, Johnny Nash, War, and Earth, Wind & Fire but the distortion of the guitar, the pounding of the bass and the maniacal rhythm of the drums made me becoming a devoted believer and I wanted to hear more. Much more.
It would be awhile before I heard the first Van Halen album in full but once I knew who gave me the music on the Burbank label, one could not listen to the radio without hearing them. Keep in mind too that early on, my radio habits were AM radio because that was the norm, Top 40 music was great and the best. Once I discovered FM radio and heard the kind of music I loved, I never went back.
In my childhood, I still remember going to record and department stores and there were a few times when it seemed a new Van Halen album was released. I clearly remember being at GEM store on Ward Avenue when Women And Children First was brand new, I thought “my uncle has to know about this” but being 18 or 19 at this point, listening to 98 Rock, I knew he either heard it on the radio, if not walking away from a record store with his copy. I clearly remember when Fair Warning was brand new and I know when Diver Down came out, for it was represented by a music video by a new cable network (MTV) that banned it because the “pretty woman” in the video was actually a transvestite. Kinda funny, considering how in early 1982, a transvestite offended a network but by that fall. “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” became one of the hottest songs on MTV, leading to radio airplay, by a guy named Boy George. Thus, a transvestite promoting a song called “(Oh) Pretty Woman” shouldn’t have meant anything but cable network standards were still weird. The video wasn’t suggestive and yet the controversy was too much.
Oddly enough, the first Van Halen album I ever got was 1984, the one with all of those hits: “Jump”, “I’ll Wait”, “Hot For Teacher” and “Panama”. The album fans and credits claimed was a massive sell-out for the band because it had keyboards even though the band (well, Eddie Van Halen) was using it on Fair Warning. Hard rock and heavy metal was considered manly music and anything extra into that rock formula was almost anti-metal, anti-rock and yes, feminine. As someone who was into Pink Floyd and a growing amount of progressive rock, I loved organs, keyboards, and synths so all this talk about rock becoming more “feminine” because of keyboards was stupid and later, very pathetic. When I went to high school, I would discovered some of the best hard rock and metal fans were women, some even had nicknames similar to their favorite musicians. I went to school with a girl named Dana Jabs who loved Scorpions guitarist Matthias Jabs. Oddly enough, I knew her as Dana Jabs but I don’t know if her real last name was Jabs or if she was actually Dana.
Yet that first Van Halen album was a huge influence on not only the next wave of guitarists from that point on, but even in the fashion of the guitar. I know many guitarists put electrical tape on their guitars like Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” guitar, sprayed it in red or black paint and gave it that look. Everyone wanted to have that look, everyone wanted to have his look. His guitar wizardly was too much and many wanted to be the new EVH. Yet Van Halen was much more than a guitarist, which is what made the band so solid and so great. Most people often talk bout rhythm sections, groups with a solid drummer and bassist but the brotherly love between Eddie and Alex Van Halen was obvious in everything they played. They were two distinct musicians with different mentalities and yet they worked. As for the genuine rhythm section, Alex was a demon with the low-end theories of bassist Michael Anthony and what people loved was his falsetto singing. Some have said over the years that Anthony was the far better singer than David Lee Roth, or even Sammy Hagar or even “the other guy”. Anthony could not be messed with and for decades, no one dared to. That doesn’t take away the sheer elegance of David Lee Roth, who sang and screamed like a banshee and had a sexuality to match. Women wanted to eat him, men wanted his spandex wardrobe. Together, that Roth/Anthony/Van Halen/Van Halen lineup were a militia and in those seven years they were together before Roth went solo and was replaced by Sammy Hagar, they became monarchs that very few could measure up to. Many still can’t.
40 years later, Van Halen is an album by a band who were lead to Warner Bros. with help from Gene Simmons so while Kiss were very much the monarchs, the kings or knights in Satan’s service, of our world, Van Halen were a band that said “now it’s our turn”. The addition of their music and musicianship was incredible and 40 years later, even if I may not be around to talk about it, there will be enough people to listen to it and say “I can’t believe they made music like this 80 years ago.” When rock bands were releasing albums around this time, critics were calling them dinosaurs due to the rise of punk rock but Van Halen brought a new life to this alleged dying genre. Van Halen saved hard rock and helped introduce a generation to heavy metal.
If there is any album that deserves the Biggie line “it was all a dream”, then perhaps an album created by Josh Davis would fit perfectly. Endtroducing (Mo’ Wax/ffrr) came out at a time when it was needed but it also depends on why it was needed, according to ones musical preferences. It was looked upon as a collage of 100 percent samples when the voices of Gift Of Gab, Lateef The Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow’s then-girlfriend Lisa Haugen were elements of the soundscape that is DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, where that randomness becomes part of the sonic decoupage. Thus if it is decoupage, one is left to ask “listen, children: what does this all mean?” or does it have to mean something? It meant something the moment he began creating the album and in a way, there’s more than one meaning to the album. I will share my interpretation of the album and songs that have created what I feel is not only one of the best albums of 1996 or the 1990’s, of any genre, but one of the best albums ever made in recorded history.
The first time I heard of DJ Shadow was when he received Unsigned Hype status in The Source back in 1991. The review made me curious as to what the mixtape by “Shadow” was about but unlike reviews found in the punk fanzine MaximumRockNRoll (MRR), there was no contact address to be able to purchase it or ask for more information. I wanted to hear “Let The Remix Hit ‘Em” and what he did with a Hendrix song and a Commodores break. Journalist Matty C. even told readers that if people wanted beats, they should inquire but without an address, one would have to somehow seek the “Shadow” in mysterious ways. Back then, no one knew he worked with rapper Paris nor did anyone know he was getting an opportunity to make himself known through the greatness of the late Dave “Funken” Klein, which leads me to Zimbabwe Legit.
Funkenklein had established a hip-hop division of Disney Records called HollywoodBASIC and one of the first artists he worked with was a duo of African brothers called Zimbabwe Legit. They released an EP that was highlighted with a song remixed by Black Sheep’s Mista Lawnge and while the songs on the EP were okay, I found myself enjoying something simply called “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix”. While Discogs claims the song was a remix of “Doin’ Damage In My Native Language”, it sounded nothing like what it was sourced from and perhaps that was the point: for Shadow to do his damage in his native language of records while also showing where the group came from. In my mind, “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix” seemed initially like a slight rip-off of the Beastie Boys’ “To All The Girls” with the shared use of Idris Muhammad’s “Loren’s Dance” but it seemed Shadow was getting a chance to explore the song far better than the Beastie Boys ever did in the intro and outro of Paul’s Boutique. It seemed like Shadow loved the beat too but wanted to let people know there’s much more than what they know. He wanted to bring people into what they didn’t know or should know. I was immediately hooked but it had taken me awhile to realize the Shadow of “Legitimate Mix” infamy was the guy whose demo tape I had been seeking.
The next time I heard from DJ Shadow was none of the music he was releasing in the UK, for I hadn’t been aware he was signed to Mo’ Wax. It was through a split 12″ single he did with everyone from the Solesides collective, which I had read about in URB magazine. Solesides was the label they had put together when they were attending college, as a way to get their music out into the world. Arguably, what Lateef, Lyrics Born, Gift Of Gab, Chief Xcel, and DJ Shadow sounded nothing like what Bay Area hip-hop sounded like but they were away from the norm and were willing to press up their own music, get it out into the world and see what happens. Shadow’s side of the record was credited to The Groove Robbers, for he was the one stealing from the grooves to create his music. I hadn’t been aware at the time that “groove robbers” was a phrase used in the intro of his song “Entropy” so it would take me awhile before I was able to accumulate the pieces of the puzzle he was creating for himself. However, it wasn’t “Hardcore (Instrumental) Hip Hop” that I liked as much as I loved “Last Stop”, as the beat was just in your face and it didn’t stop. Little did I know he was putting together music from sounds that were also a part of my origins of someone with a “sample ear”, it too was the roots of my love of the work of Art Of Noise, something he would scatter a bit in the debut album to come.
For someone like myself who still had to put the pieces of the puzzle together, Endtroducing was not an album that was recorded in one sitting or a series of sessions that was meant to create a full project. Some of those songs were at least two years old by the time Endtroducing, specifically “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)” and “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1) (Blue Sky Revisit)”, both of which were part of a 4-part movement gathered as a single on Mo’ Wax. However, one can either examine the album in-depth or simply listen to it for its textures and figure out if there was a meaning to the message, or was the message something you discovered when you looked at the run-off groove of a record and said “hey, there’s a statement here”?
If this was the the beginning of the end, what was ending? “Best Foot Forward” was a way to start on his instinctive travels and the paths of not only Shadow’s rhythm, but the rhythm of everyone he has come across since childhood, detected by the Stanley Clarke bass, Kool G. Rap saying “back again”, Stezo claiming someone would be “using and confusing beats that you never heard” and then touching back on his HollywoodBASIC by throwing in something from Lifers Group’s “The Real Deal” (“1990”). You can say bringing in Bob Wood, national program of the CHUM Group was a way to say he was a traveler, someone who did not stay in one place to compile his sound collection. With Russell Simmons letting listeners know that before things get started, the sounds were a way to fill you in before he began… producing.
When I made music, I said I would be “making music through sounds and samples”. Shadow was not someone who only looked for beats and cool samples just to create something funky, for the lyrics within the song or the song title itself would help to tell the story. In this case, the piano comes from Jeremy Storch (the uncle of one-time keyboardist of The Roots, Scott Storch) and his 1969 song “I Feel A New Shadow”. Shadow would make that an occasional signature throughout his career, using songs that refer to a shadow of some sort to let people know that while you may not “know” him, his presence is always there.
If a shadow is within his own presence, who is it? It seemed that this had a lot more to do than just making something sound funky from music not meant to be danced to at the club:
“I can fly through the strangest land. Black…”
“Black satin starry eyes/browm smile…”
Was there someone else within the shadows and if so, who is it, who is the one with the “brown smiling face on my pillow”?
“…and I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me, which is… which comes from all the music that I hear, you know, I’d like for it to come out. It’s not really me that’s coming (through), the music’s coming through me.”
The moment I heard that quote, I knew this guy had a sense of how I felt with music but I also knew that this album was far more than just a gathering of obscure samples from unknown places. There had to be more.
The moment “The Number Song” began, I knew that this was very much a hip-hop album, despite the fact a number of critics didn’t state it or refused to say this was hip-hop, or the 1996 brand of hip-hop. I immediately recognized the “one, two, three, four, five!” chops at the beginning, recognized the “break down, baby” quote” and I very much knew the bass guitar drone that went through the majority of the song. Was this in honor of the Bay Area vibe? One could have easily thrown in an E-40 or Too $hort reference, and I know he has done that in other mixes and performances throughout the years but by highlighting a Metallica instrumental that a good amount of hip-hop heads wouldn’t be able to figure out, he immediately stood out from everyone else who wouldn’t dare sample Metallica. Sampling Slayer was something only Public Enemy did. Not only that but he was sampling a drum break from a song that, for me, remains one of my all time favorite hip-hop songs. Using it was a way to say “there’s more to this song than everyone hearing the phrase “baby, don’t you cry now”, for he not only manipulated the break but was adding in a breath/inhale or the end of another word so it sounded like the voice couldn’t be pulled through.
It also asks “what is the importance of the number?” In soul and funk, numbers are very important not only in counting in a rhythm but a record collector need to know which was the preferred part of the song: a Part 1 or a Part 2? Catalog numbers? A need to understand rhythm and time signatures so one could manipulate a 3/4, 5/4, or 14/4 rhythm into 4/4? A countdown towards the Fantastic Five MC’s so one could be pleasing all the ladies over at Cypress Hill? Everything has order in a song that climbed into a valley and stayed into it was time to leave but once it left the valley, where would one find themselves?
While I liked being able to hear Endtroducing and know where I had heard that song before, I very much enjoyed hearing sounds that were foreign to me, as it made me want to hear more of what he was using. Not only that but the song was in a 14/4 time signature. In the days of the Usenet where people gathered in the rec.music.hip-hop and alt.rap newsgroups, music fans would talk about why rap groups never did anything outside of the 4/4 time signature or why very few tried to rhythm in a 3/4//waltz time pattern. Here, the beat was in 14/4, which means it was in 4 + 4 + 4 + 2, the last two beats in that time signature is cut off so initially, it feels like something is missing but we go back and return to the 4 + 4 + 4 + 2. The stuttering of the mixer, the bass line from an Embryo record, the magic of Tangerine Dream, the voice of Loudon Wainright III, it’s all there to hear. I still remember being on the highway locally when I was about to take the off-ramp. For some odd reason, my mind briefly imagined that I wasn’t there and I somehow imagined myself in a section on O’ahu called Wahiawa, roughly a 15 minute drive from where I used to live in Pauoa. Entering Wahiawa meant going over what people called the airplane bridge for when you drove over, you’d hear the sound of what sounds like an airplane. I’m driving on the highway and I knew exactly where I was and yet I wasn’t. It somehow made me feel it was a “Changeling” moment, at the 6:22 part of the song.
“What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)” always comes off as a temporary break on the album, even though it’s not meant to be. The keyboard, the guitars humming, the drums decorating itself and the saxophone entering the soundscape. What I love about the song is the breakdown at 3:36, where the majority of the drums is pushed far into the mix. The best part of this part is a man simply saying “tss”, an excerpt of a possible lyric that we never get to hear in full.
The truth intermission is the untitled track, which some simply call what it is: “Track 6”. Jolly Ranchers.
“Stem” is one-part beautiful, one part harsh. Is the return of the speed metal samples a throw back to what he did in “The Number Song” or is it yet another song made to sound like another thrash metal gem chopped up beyond recognition? “Stem” was released as a single in the UK and actually became a hit. Then again, “Stem” was originally going to feature lyrics so perhaps releasing it as a single in its final mix was partly intentional. Also intentional is what you may consider the second half of the song, “Long Stem”, an extension of the first experience, beginning with the organ by Girgio Moroder that ends up becoming “Organ Donor”. The overall song is moodier and when it ends, you hear a familiar sample within “Transmission 2” from David Axelrod, a pre-cursor for what’s to come later in the album. It’s a bit of continuity that is something Pink Floyd did on their albums, bringing up a chord structure in one song that was used earlier in their career (i.e. the guitars from the mid-section of “Echoes” heard in “Is There Anybody Out There”, the scream from “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” used at the end of “Run Like Hell”, a certain bass guitar phrase used sporadically) and while that may not be the intention (or perhaps it’s another inspiration that made him do it), it works.
The second transmission comes in before L.H. makes her only sonic presence in Shadow’s music.
Trippy progressive jazz/rock and Bjork: in other instances, this would be complete nonsense but somehow within “Mutual Slump”, it works. Lisa gets a chance to share a small bit of her life when she came into the United States but the continuity is here too, with a reference to Darth Vader, perhaps an indirect suggestion of what Shadow would use with the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction) (i.e. “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now” from a Star Wars trailer.) The song finds itself chugging its vehicle, only for Lisa to tell her story but what I like the most about the song is what I originally thought was a sample from Art Of Noise’s “Donna”, the Synclavier sound of a human voice. Instead, it’s from the Roger Waters & Ron Geesin soundtrack to Music From The Body, a male “duh dum” from “More Than Seven Dwarves In Penis Land”. As a Floyd fan, I very much knew of Music From The Body as an album that was close-to-impossible to find at the time, since it was out of print. Was it worth the OOP status and if so, is it because it’s good or because it’s related to Roger Waters? It’s as weird as some of Floyd’s earlier soundtrack-related albums and while its use hear is somewhat peculiar, it fits within the Bjork and Pugh Rogefeldt sounds.
Quick story. Years ago, Eothan Alapatt, better known as Now Again Records founder Egon, once released a 12″ compilation EP with Samson & Delilah’s “There’s a DJ in Your Town”. The 12″, Guerilla Breaks Volume 1, featured the original song plus the break beat looped, not unlike something you’d hear on Ultimate Breaks & Beats or one of the breakbeat albums made by Simon Harris. In 1999 around the time of DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist’s Brainfreeze, I was figuring out the samples used in the mix plus wanting to hunt down all of the records used. That lead me to wanting a 45 of “There’s A DJ In Your Town” and on a mailing list that Egon was a part of, he said he had a copy. I had the money at the time, for it was a bit pricey and I bought it. When I got my copy, it was the white label promo on Indigo and I asked if this was an actual copy, not a counterfeit pressing. He kinda questioned me as if to say “do you know who I’m talking to? I value what I collect and if it’s a fake, I’d tell you if it’s a fake. This is real.” I eventually got the 12″ with “There’s A DJ In Your Town”, I believe a pre-cursor for what he would do when he joined Stones Throw at the time and I noticed that one of the numbers on the 12″ was the same as the 45. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not so I asked, not to be nerdy or nosy but I was just curious. Egon knew what I was doing, simply playing nerdy record collector games and he more or less said “good spot”, as in “you figured out something a lot of people wouldn’t know.” Anyway, the Guerilla Breaks Volume 1 EP had Nashville on the bottom of the label, where Egon was going to college at the time.
Back to the album. The Moroder organ sample was very nice but what I also loved was the drums taken from Tim And Bill’s “Someone”, a duo who were along the lines of Samson & Delilah or Sam & Dave, or perhaps more like The Righteous Brothers. Producer Ron Price would release it as an instrumental under the name “P.M. Or Later” by the session musicians used on “Someone”, but credited to The New Breed. There wasn’t an actual group, just a name to be used and in time, records would be released as The New Breed featuring Tim And Bill.
A brief interlude thrown out with Lyrics Born making a brief three word statement, a statement that may have seemed odd to say in response to the question brought up in the song title but it has since become one that has been used every year throughout its first presentation. Why does hip-hop still suck in 2016? Please answer us, Mr. Shimura. It wasn’t a way for Shadow to say his style of music was better than everyone else but why everyone else was not doing the kind of music with the vibe he grew up with and preferred. Why were things changing? It was much more than just new technology.
The use of Organized Konfusion to open up “Midnight in A Perfect World” could be said to be another throw back to Shadow’s HollywoodBASIC days, taking verbal cues to continue his story. The use of Pekka Pohjola’s “The Madness Subsides” (b/k/a “Sekoilu Seestyy”) beautifully welcomes the listener into this world that welcomes in the new day. The use of the drums in Rotary Connection’s “Life Could” and slowing it down is a similar approach Dr. Dre had when using The Winston’s “Amen Brother” for “Straight Outta Compton”, turning into something one wouldn’t normally decipher unless they knew how to do a match between both records. (At one point, fans had assumed the drums used was from Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” but someone figured out it was actually the Rotary Connection. What links both Marlena Shaw and Rotary Connection is not only Minnie Riperton being heard in both but the fact the drummer used by producer Charles Stepney is said to be Morris Jennings, although Maurice White had also worked extensively with Stepney before White moved to California to start Earth, Wind & Fire.) What is also beautiful is the vocal choir created by Meredith Monk and her vocal group. It may not have been something one would normally find on ECM Records but then again, ECM is not exactly on the same level of a Blue Note, Verve, or Prestige.
The song can be considered meditative, a downtempo classic even though I always hear it as being very hip-hop in the vein of “Straight Outta Compton”, but down the railroad tracks somewhere else in town. Not “across the tracks” but along the same track going on the same path to its destination. To this day, even though the vocals apparently are just a woman singing “ooh” (the Baraka sample), I swear I hear her singing “can you hear me?” even though she is just singing a melody. The song was blowing through the jasmine, at least in my mind.
When I was last home in Honolulu in 2000, I had met someone whom I had called a good friend at the time. I was doing a blog back then before blogs were a thing and to describe the moment, I said something to the effect of “when I walked out that building at midnight, it was then I realized my perfect world was here” in the city that started my greatest influences in life and music.
While I enjoyed the songs that were four to five minutes, I am someone who always enjoy sit when an artist chooses to go on a lengthy excursion in their music. It’s why I loved the 11-minute “In/Flux”, the 33-minute “What Does Your Soul Look Like”, or the 10-minute “Lost And Found (S.F.L.)”. This is a journey song that takes you along the aforementioned tracks in the valley and at one point, one feels like wanting to brave going to the other side, which happens at the 3:54 mark. It’s the “Scatter Brain” part of “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain”, where the drums are chopped in double time that may sound like something Timbaland would make his trademark a year later but also reminds me of a lot of Tahitian music I grew up with. It could have easily been something from teh 49th State album Little Brown Gal but the keyboard sample in the background still lets us know that while he wanted us to travel elsewhere, we are still very much here, in the familiar place you still call home.
The album ends with yet another beginning, in this case Part 1 of “What Does Your Soul Look Like”. In this 4-part suite, Shadow began the album at Part 2, goes to parts 3 and 4 before ending with the beginning of Part 1. If you keep on following the path, you may wonder if he knew what direction he was going in teh first place but he knew. He simply wanted to present to you his designed map in the hope you’d be willing to travel his own way.
The song begins with random sounds from the Alan Parsons Project before fading towards jazz from The Heath Brothers and “The Voice Of The Saxophone”. The first voice we hear is that of singer Shawn Phillips, who tells us “and why should we/want to go back where we were, how many years could that have been?” Do we continue to reminisce or is it brave to look forward to the future and what is the future? The drums played by Idris Muhammad on “Joe Splivingates” by David Young is incredible, fitting to me considering where I had first heard Shadow (the Muhammad sample of “Loren’s Dance” in “Shadow’s Legitimate Mix”, that continuation of continuity).
What makes this song work is something that was not used on the original mix of “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1)”, but this version is subtitled “Blue Sky Revisit” which means something is different. In this case, it’s the presence of a female voice who sings “all my life I’ve felt contempt to stargaze at the skies, now I only want to melt“. Originally, I had interpreted the lyric as something she “could not understand” but “now I understand” until I discovered who and what the sample is (Irene Kral’s “Star Eyes”) and heard the song in full. When you realize the sample is called “Star Eyes”, it goes back to the lyric in “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” about “black satin starry eyes”, everything begins to tie in. Once the voice says her lines, it response in French:
“E c’era già (and there was already)
questo amore che viviamo tanto tempo fa (this love that we live a long time ago)
c’era già, una rosa che ti ho dato le canzoni (there was already a rose I gave you in song)
che ho cantato la tristezza in allegria (in sadness, there is also happiness)”
Are these the souls that found each other and if so, where do they plan on going and how?” It does not matter for somehow, the souls looking for one another are able to fly up together and there is someone who sings what I always heard as “I’ll fly” but is most likely part of the Italian lyrics in Gianni Nazzaro’s “C’era Già”. Whatever the reason behind the use of the new voice in “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1)”, it works beautifully and it is perhaps realized that Endtroducing is a love story but one with a triple meaning:
1) It’s a love story from one person to another
2) It’s a love story of hip-hop
Then there’s #3.
The album comes to a close with the third transmission, where the radio waves are coming in from the distance but we’re not sure where it’s from. We feel things are about to fade but we realize this is the moral of the story, one that can be deciphered only by those in the know. If you simply hear the sounds, it’s just eerie sounding but like a number of spots on the album, I knew exactly where the soundbyte came from: Twin Peaks (season 2, episode 2). Julee Cruise was singing on how “the sun will come out each day” before her surroundings freeze and a man says “it is happening again.
It is happening again.”
It fades to another scene that shows a record player at the end of its record so all you hear is the run-off groove in repetition. At the moment it shows the record player, the character of Leland Palmer is looking at the camera and something happens, one of the biggest moments in the Twin Peaks series. It is revealed that Palmer is either Bob or that anyone may have the evil of Bob within them. Endtroducing ends cold at the moment when the revelation is finally made in the TV show so one is meant to left wondering what happened. Why did he end the album as soon as you hear Leland give a confident snicker? Do you focus on what’s to come or simply at the play of visuals, a record player meant to represent the end and if so, do we continue? It is then we realize the use of a record-related sample makes this album a love story to vinyl.
When DJ Shadow did an online chat with the In/Flux mailing list in 1998 or 1999, I had asked if Endtroducing was a “Bob Sandwich”. He wasn’t sure what I meant at the time but I stated the album begins with someone talking about Bob Wood, the national program director of the CHUM Group and ends with the revelation of Bob from Twin Peaks. If true, then could “Bob” also represent the number 808, which in hip-hop refers to the Roland TR-808, one of the most notable drum machines of the genre? I was simply wanting to know if DJ Shadow was playing a game in the hopes someone would figure it out. He replied and stated it’s an interesting theory but is very much a coincidence. He didn’t state yes or no either but I like the idea that it “could” mean something if I want it to mean something extra.
Endtroducing influenced a wide range of producers. When the album was released on November 19, 1996, I was making music at the time as Crut and with my limited money and equipment, I had hoped to one day create the kind of music I’d want to create but couldn’t figure out how. Even with my limitations, I knew there had to be a way even though I was someone who had doubts, as I felt I could only produce music in a professional manner. When I first heard Endtroducing, it was the music in my head, the album I always wanted to hear. It was a mix of everything I had heard over the years but done in a manner which was almost like a secret code, a DJ/radio set from someone saying “I like to play games with the collection I have, I can move and groove you but I also want to make you think if you wish to go that route.” The next album that did that for me was The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, which was an album that was filled with 100% samples, as there was no one from the group who opened a mic and made themselves known. The funny thing about that is back in 2000 or 2001, someone said “I heard a group from Australia that reminds me of your music, have you heard of The Avalanches?” I hadn’t and when I heard it in full and the story they told with the samples, I felt like giving up being a producer. Perhaps in a small way, I did two years later and I haven’t returned since.
Endtroducing was an album that challenged its listeners. At the same time, it also seemed to confuse people who weren’t able to figure out what it was, what were the influences and why it wasn’t just a megamix all at 94 beats per minute. It didn’t have a Gang Starr vibe, it didn’t have a Goldie vibe, an Acen vibe or come from the world of house, jungle, or fridgebeat. Yet in a way, it had all of those things, trying to interpret the music in their own way. It could very much be something you’d hear at a club, in a R.E.C. room, at a rave, or in your bedroom with headphones. The album mattered because I made it matter at a time that I needed it in my life. 1996 was a year that also gave us Prince Paul’s Psychoanalysis? and Dr. Octagon’s debut album. A few months before its release in the U.S., Ghostface Killah released his debut album, Ironman. I thought 1996 could not get any better from a guy who was willing to talk about a brother named John who peed in bed. Then Endtroducing came around, an album I read about through an interview in URB. It was then I realized this DJ Shadow was not only the DJ Shadow I bought two years previous but also the Shadow I had been seeking since 1991.
I also liked the fact that by calling himself Shadow, the moniker had a double meaning of sorts. He insisted that he was a shadow of hip-hop, to the point of non-existence but always present. If you didn’t see his face, you would know his music, whether he was “Giving Up The Ghost”, understanding when “The Mountain Would Fall”, being “Sad And Lonely” (or perhaps not), getting down to a 108 tempo, being positive about the flash-flash-flash-flash-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-back or understanding what happens when someone is alone and satisfied, realizing someone else could be alone and satisfied too. Oh, you are alone? Maybe he, through his music, can help you.
It’s the mystery of DJ Shadow’s music that keeps people coming back and I’m glad to say I’ve been a fan for 25 years, even if searching for his music was difficult in that first year. 20 years after Endtroducing was released in the United States, it remains an album that is still a welcome relief for people who were seeking something different, only to discover it’s not as different as initially believed. Your personal discoveries lead you there and new discoveries will keep you hearing it in different ways each time. I hope to be 70 years old, still listening to it with the same excitement as I did in my first listen 20 years ago.
When Prince released his album Parade on April 1, 1986, it was his third album in three years. Looking back at how the music industry normally plays itself, maybe three albums in three years is not that of a big deal but consider that the first album of that three-album batch was Purple Rain, essentially the soundtrack for one of the biggest films of the year. 1984 was also the year where Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was finally dying down in massive popularity after its release in November 1982. Normally when someone comes out with a hugely successful album, they generally wait two to three years, taking those years to tour across the country and perhaps the world, then cutting the business off and allowing them to relax and decompress. Then perhaps two years after the release of that album, they return to the recording studio after having a number of songs waiting to be recorded and see what happens.
However, it seemed Prince was not on a normal time schedule compared to everyone else. He not only had time specifically to make his album, but whenever he felt like doing a session or two for someone he was working with or wanting to collaborate with someone else, he had the opportunity to do so. On top of that, it seemed when he wasn’t on tour, he was in the studio recording a wealth of songs, some of which remain on the vaults as is so the only time anyone knew he was releasing a project was when it was reported in Rolling Stone. As Purple Rain came out with a string of successful singles, it was when we heard about him already finished with another album, Around The World In A Day. Upon listening to the first song, the title track, it seemed Prince was not about to follow-up a successful album by creating variations on a theme. Due to how different some of the tracks sounded to those who were able to listen, it was immediately called Prince’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with slight psychedelic touches. Yet with every hint of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Penny Lane” one felt they could detect on that album, you had songs like “America”, “Pop Life”, “Temptation”, and “Tamborine”.
Around The World In A Day featured four singles, at least in the UK. While “Paisley Park” also marked the introduction of his brand new boutique record label, it was also the first single released from the album and got a small bit of airplay in the United States but depending on what you read, either radio programmers didn’t like it as much, code for “it doesn’t sound anything similar to “When Doves Cry” or “Let’s Go Crazy” and we need something familiar so fans can say “hey, welcome back” or fans didn’t take to it immediately. They may have wanted something closer to Purple Rain than the Beatles fetishism Rolling Stone were creaming about. Nonetheless, when Warner Bros. UK decided to release “Raspberry Beret” as the album’s second single, that became the United States’ first release for the album. While not as big as Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day was a huge success and just when it was expected for him to perhaps rest another year, here came news of not only a new album, but a new movie.
When news surfaced that Prince would be doing a follow-up film to Purple Rain, it made a lot of people anxious. The hope was it would be as great and powerful as his initial Hollywood success and on top of that, it would be in black & white. In comparison, it was a reverse approach that The Beatles did with their first two films. A Hard Days’s Night was shot in black & white and the following year, Help! was filmed in color. Prince decided to do something completely different, to the point where when the film was released on July 2, 1986, it moved many mainstream fans away from their newly-embraced superstar. It lead many wondering if Prince had lost the power that introduced him to them.
However, fans had three months to have some sense of what this new movie would be like with Parade. Like Purple Rain, while it was released as a soundtrack, the music worked on its own terms and could be heard separately from the film. In fact, most people who saw the film probably wanted to forget it, as the film that cost Warner Bros. $12,000,000 to make barely made over $10,000,000. It lost money for Warner Bros., who spent $7,000,000 to make Purple Rain, relatively low but decent for a first-time project for Prince, and it made close to $70,000,000. Under The Cherry Moon was panned, bashed, give any word that compared it to complete crap and it probably received it. I saw it at a local drive-in theater and I didn’t mind it at all, I thought it was good. It was quirky and fun and while that may come off as a nice way to say “it’s good but not as good”, not at all. There were a lot of in-jokes throughout the film and sadly, new Prince fans weren’t wanting Prince to be quirky. They wanted to try to understand their new hero and Prince wasn’t about to let anyone in. If that is anywhere close to being true, Prince was not afraid to let people in through his music.
If Around The World In A Day was considered his Sgt. Pepper, then what to make of Parade? For me, the album’s first four songs would easily be compared to the medley that makes up Side 2 of Abbey Road, as each song did not sound like the next but were strung together in harmony to carry the listener and let them know it was meant to be listened to as one. Yet if we are to make one last Beatles comparison, Parade could be considered his Revolver. If that’s to case, then what to make of the album that would follow a year later, Sign ‘O’ The Times? I’m ahead of myself.
Prince had utilized string sections in two tracks on Around The World In A Day: “Raspberry Beret” and “The Ladder”. He liked it so much that he wanted to do much more with one of his next projects. He decided to make it work for a number of songs on his Parade album by bringing in Clare Fischer, a composer/arranger who most likely knew of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, as both of them were children of the recording studio culture of Los Angeles that their parents came from. Nonetheless, Prince knew he wanted to work with Fischer in time they would but their relationship involved never meeting with each other. In an interview with Fischer, he said that Prince did not want to know what he looked like, nor did he want to be anywhere near the recording studio when he created arrangements for him. Prince felt if he was there, he would interfere and end up adding his input, which he did not want to do. Prince was confident in his own capabilities but wanted to work with Fischer because he put faith in his capabilities so in the time they made music, they apparently never met each other. They traded master tapes, sheet music, and notes and if Prince liked it, that is what would be added. If Prince didn’t like it, it wasn’t used. That was their healthy exchange and as odd as that might sound, it ended up creating some of the most incredible music in Prince’s discography.
Parade is very much an album by Prince, The Revolution, and Clare Fischer, that can’t be denied. Bootleg cassettes circulated on what was considered early rough versions of Parade, with one bootleg album called Charade. An early version of “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” was called “Little Girl Wendy’s Parade”, the line of which surfaces in the song “Kiss” during the guitar solo. In that early version of the song without the string arrangement, the lyrics are different and things sound sparse, if not empty as if something is indeed missing and what Fischer did is welcome in the listener into a new world, Prince’s new world, or Fischer’s new world, or “Prince’s new world with Fischer hanging out in the mythological background.” The strings build the song together in different ways and while it is arguably the most effective part of Under The Cherry Moon, the idea of hearing strings bringing the viewer in to this unusual Parisian world, the world it captures in audio is distinctly its own.
Just when it things Prince will take you to a completely world, he brings you into a “New Position”. It’s in the same tempo as “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” but is slightly funkier, at least in feel. The exchange of vocals between Prince, Wendy, and Lisa shows how beautiful they worked together and their groove was something that was irresistible.
This eventually segues directly into “I Wonder U”, essentially a Wendy & Lisa song with the kind of eroticism some fans were hearing through their harmonies, arguably starting with their exchange in “Computer Blue”. For me, this is one of the best songs on the album. While Prince is not heard vocally throughout the song, it is Prince who plays everything but the string arrangement. In fact, even though the album is credited to Prince And The Revolution, The Revolution only played on three of the tracks. We wouldn’t hear anyone from The Revolution, outside of Wendy and Lisa, until song #5. and we were still here on track #3. The lyrics of “I Wonder U” are basic and one could hear this as an interlude, even though it works very well on its own. One might argue Prince could’ve done more but it easily does its magic without anything else added to it. On top of that, Fischer’s arrangement carries things nicely until the next track.
The last song of the four-part movement is the title track to the film, where Prince takes to the piano. It is here where he builds a sculpture for what the movie would be like, at least in theory:
I want to live life to the ultimate high
maybe I’ll die young like heroes die
maybe I’ll kiss you some wild special way
if nobody kills me or thrills me soon
I’ll die in your arms under the cherry moon
Essentially he is telling what will happen in the film but what works about the song is while it wouldn’t be known that Prince played everything but the arrangement in “Under The Cherry Moon”, it sounds like it’s just him and his “band” in a small jazz club, playing a bit of the blues and being intimate with no one but himself. I always love the “if that alright” part as he is getting into a piano groove. One can say he is either giving himself code as he is in the studio doing the overdubs, or perhaps it’s a bit of code for Fischer to do something specific. One can say Prince got caught up in the moment and simply said something as if someone else was in the room or the studio. As the song comes to an end, the album’s first four tracks could have easily been something Prince could’ve or should’ve done more of in the years to come, and I wish he did. Then again, I probably would’ve said something to the effect of “Prince did that mini rock opera again, I wish he didn’t repeat himself.”
Track 5 is the first song where The Revolution joins in with help from Eric Leeds on baritone saxophone in the jazzy funk pump of “Girls And Boys”, complete with mean baritone saxophone work from Eric Leeds. Also in assistance is Sheila E., who helps Wendy and Lisa in their background vocals. The song was recorded in July 1985, most likely around the same time Prince and Sheila E. recorded “Alexa De Paris”, a song that would be used within the film but was released as the non-LP B-side to “Mountains”.
This goes immediately into “Life Can Be So Nice”, which sounds like it could be another Revolution contribution but is actually Prince all to himself with help from Wendy and Lisa and Sheila E. on cowbells. When this is heard in Under The Cherry Moon, it is one of my favorite parts of the film, where you see Prince sitting in his car just jamming and getting lost in his own groove before he is seen mouthing the lyrics “scrambled eggs, so boring.”
“Venus De Milo” wraps up Side 1 and sounds like a true interlude, not wasteful but a nice delicate piece that highlights Prince with Sheila E. on drums, most likely recorded around the time she did her parts in “Girls & Boys” and “Alexa De Paris”.
Side 2 begins with the second song with the rest of The Revolution, “Mountains”. This one sounds like a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Larry Graham, with Mayfield’s essence heard in Prince’s falsetto while Brown Mark’s bass work could be straight out of the Sly & The Family Stone vaults. While many have said the lyrics are Christian in theme, the line “Africa divided, hijack in the air/it’s enough to make you want to lose your mind” suggests it’s also cultural as well. The overall feel of the song is about someone looking for love and regardless of how you find it, it will pull you out of your loneliness. Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss’ horn playing is sharp but it also ties in with the complete arrangement from Fischer, which carries this song throughout in different textures. The 12″ version, a full ten minutes, carries a funkier groove and it offers a chance for Leeds and Bliss to get lost with their instruments.
“Do U Lie” could be considered an extension of an interlude, as if “I Wonder U” and “Venus De Milo” wasn’t enough and Prince said “I need to make something stronger but keep things mellow.” The music is primarily Prince with help from Wendy and Lisa but Wendy’s brother, Jonathan Melvoin, sits in for this song playing the drums. It’s playful and if others covered this song in their own way, it could easily become its own entity.
“Kiss” was Parade first single and the one most people identify with the album and, if they remember it, the film. While the video also featured Wendy playing the guitar, she is not in the actual version. Prince plays everything in the song and originally he did it as a demo to present to a group he had signed to Paisley Park, Mazarati. However, after Prince heard Mazarati’s version of the song, which was funkier than the acoustic and laid back approach of his demo, Prince decided to tinker with their formula and make it his song. He pulled out a few elements (including the original lead vocal from Sir Casey Terry) but made sure to leave the background vocals from Mazarati to give it a bit of character. The song, pulled by the seductive and also humorous music video, eventually went to #1 on Billboard’s Pop Singles Chart, becoming Prince’s third #1 single and because of its success, is often one of the Prince songs you’ll always hear on the oldies format today.
If there’s another song on Parade that had much more of a Sly & The Family Stone hint, that would belong to “Anotherloverholenyohead”, the third and last song on the album to feature the entire Revolution, along with Wendy’s twin sister Susannah on background vocals. The third single in the U.S. from Parade, there’s so much to enjoy from this song, from the different ways he sings one verse compared to the others to Prince’s guitar work, especially in the last minute. The extended version on the 12″ doubles in time and allows everyone to keep things in the pocket until he calls it a day. A full arrangement from Fischer had been made for “Anotherloverholenyohead” but according to PrinceVault.com, he liked the song without the orchestration so while you do hear light strings in parts of the song, most of it was pulled out of the final mix.
The album closes with “Sometimes It Snows In April and ends up being the moral of the story in Under The Cherry Moon although if you just hear it as is, you might wonder what it means and what it has to do with the rest of the album. The main character in the film is Christopher Tracy, played by Prince, and the name can be shortened to Chris T., or “Christ”. If “Mountains” was said to be Christian themed, you might say that by the snow existing in the warm spring month of April, it’s a reference to Jesus Christ in his last days. Everything is in metaphor and in the song, it’s just Prince on piano with Wendy on guitar and vocals and Lisa on keyboards and vocals. While he did initially approve of Fischer’s string arrangement in the song, he decided to not use it on the final mix of the album but choosing for it to be used in Under The Cherry Moon.
The song itself ends with two lines that you could say ended up being prophetic for what was to come for Prince and his career: Sometimes I wish that life was never ending
and all good things, they say, never last
all good things, they say, never last
and love, it isn’t love until it’s past
While Under The Cherry Moon was a complete flop, Parade is easily one of the best things Prince recorded and released not only in the 1980’s but his entire career. You could play along with the story line of Christopher Tracy but the album has more of a running theme than an actual concept but then again, you can say the same thing about the film. His songs, his guitar work, his vocals and musicianship was becoming stronger and by continuing his collaboration with Wendy and Lisa and bringing in Clare Fischer to help, one was hoping these good vibes would continue for perhaps the rest of the decade. As we now know, Prince had other things in mind for he wasn’t about to wait around to follow himself up in anything.
Parade would become the last set of music credited to Prince & The Revolution. A tour in support of the album was fairly small compared to all of the dates did for Purple Rain and if you look at the concert dates, it almost seems as if he had no urge to push the music to a bigger or greater audience. Only eleven shows were done in the U.S. and the second half of the tour went to Europe along with a small handful of shows in Japan.
Perhaps the failure of the film in the United States moved Prince to wonder if it’s worth supporting the album at all. “Anotherloverholenyohead” only went as high as #63 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart and ran out of steam in a month. By the end of the tour, Wendy & Lisa were no longer happy with Prince’s shenanigans and that put an end to The Revolution. While reading that made it off as if Prince’s decisions to break things down was sudden, perhaps it was something he was preparing to do in the first place, despite the fact most of his band had toured with him long before there was a Revolution.
Nonetheless, even when Parade was recorded, mixed, and mastered, he was still working on an album that had yet to be finished, Dream Factory and it had been planned for release at the end of the year. In other words, Prince was not only working on what was assumed to be one new album a year for three years, but he had enough on stand-by to possibly release a second album. All the song that were done over the years were put together for album configurations but Prince was not happy with either of them. A few weeks after Under The Cherry Moon was released in limited theaters, Prince was putting together what he felt was good enough for a double album. However, when Wendy & Lisa getting ready to leave, there was no reason for him to release Dream Factory as is and the album was scrapped. The album never came anywhere close to being approved for a final version but some of its songs would be used for a project-to-come.
That included a third album that was planned for 1987, and it was Crystal Ball that was was not only announced as his follow-up to Parade, but it would make up for the scrapped Dream Factory (at this point in his career, Prince’s on-again/off-again album projects were becoming told like a soap opera). Portions of what was Dream Factory were used for what was to be Crystal Ball and he came up with a plan to release it as a triple LP. That included tracks from a new project he was working on, where his voice was sped up to where he came close to sounding like a Chipmunk. That would be the voice of Camille and he had plans on releasing a full album under the character. While sales for his music were still very strong, Warner Bros. looked at the flop that was Under The Cherry Moon and told him under no circumstance would they ever release a 3-record set. He needed to reduce the amount of songs or come up with something completely different. While Prince had no problem with coming up with anything, two of his potentially-biggest projects were not meant to be and that would help him create what we now know as Sign ‘O’ The Times. When news of that album surfaced in Rolling Stone, I was kind of leery about it, only because his other projects were not considered worthy so what should I expect from him in 1987. We would find out on March 31, 1987.
As for Parade, it ended a formula that Prince very much had in the palm of his hands and while it’s easy to say he let it fly away, perhaps Wendy and Lisa’s departure was inevitable. Fortunately it lead to them being signed to Columbia Records and release music on their own, pushing on with a musical collaboration that continues to this day. Prince went to a different and arguably higher level with Sign ‘O’ The Times, which continued with the release of Lovesexy and later with Diamonds And Pearls, nothing could equal what was created on Parade, and perhaps even Prince knows this too. The trilogy of albums Prince did with The Revolution are remarkable and while each of them are still self-contained showcases, it’s what he did with the other members that helped make those albums stronger. Parade was, in many ways, a climax of a feeling that ended up becoming another feeling, from a man who refused to stay in one place at any given time. Maybe he forced himself in not wanting to be too comfortable, not ever wanting to take the easy way out. If he did, he could have yet… well, anyone can assume what he would’ve/could’ve/should’ve but at this point in his career, Prince was doing things with his music that no one else could equal to. As Sheila E. said in one of her songs, Prince was inside of his toy box and he didn’t cared who knocked. Parade was a theme park you never wanted to leave but all good things, as they say, never last, and it didn’t.
Good evening, do not attempt to adjust your radio, there is nothing wrong, we have taken control as to bring you this special show, we will return it to you as soon as you are grooving. Welcome to station W.E. F.U.N.K., better known as We-Funk, or deeper still, the Mothership Connection, home of the extraterrestrial brothers, dealers of funky music. P.Funk, uncut funk, the bomb.
Coming you directly from the Mothership, top of the chocolate milky way. 500,000 kilowatts of P.Funk power, so kick back, ya’dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums. Who me, I’m known as Lollipop Man, alias The Long Haired Sucker, my motto is…
At the age of 5, I had heard something I had never heard before. My young life existed by listening to records on the radio but this was the very first time I had ever heard the radio on a record. As someone who fell in love with the means of communication through on-air announcer and listener, my first job was not wanting to be a police officer, astronaut, or a fireman. I wanted to be a disc jockey, the idea of playing music for anyone willing to listen was the ultimate goal, so to hear these peculiar aliens broadcasting from an unknown radio station felt like I was entering a secret club house. At 5 years old, I may not have known the reality of this club but I certainly wanted to live there forever.
Mothership Connection was Parliament’s fourth full length album, their third album for Casablanca Records. They were a group founded by George Clinton, who originally started them as a vocal group called The Parliaments, named after a popular cigarette brand. When Clinton found The Parliaments concept a bit boring, he formed Funkadelic, a cross section of what was psychedelic and funky, a loud mixture of rock and hard soul. The core of Funkadelic were the musicians but they had a team of singers, including Clinton. Those singers were the core of what was The Parliaments, who decided to simplify and call themselves Parliament. In time, Clinton found himself not running two different bands, but the same band who used two different names for the sake of trying to be like Ike Turner and James Brown by milking the system for all that it could be worth. In other words, if one group could make a set of money, why not two, even if they’re one and the same? Originally, the musical vibe of both Parliament and Funkadelic were pretty much one and the same but by the mid-70’s, Clinton realized Funkadelic could rely on the grit and dirtiness of the music while Parliament could be designed with a sense of polish not unlike the mechanics of James Brown and his bands. In time, Parliament and Funkadelic would be known to describe a united movement: P.Funk, or a Parliafunkadelicment Thang. Once you heard the code words, you could not mistake them for anyone else, and it got bigger and weirder when there were more subsidiary bands making themselves known, be it Parlet, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, or The Brides Of Funkenstein. For the sake of wanting to make this article basic, I will limit the discussion to just Parliament/Funkadelic and this album.
By five, I had already been a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire and War, along with groups like El Chicano, Santana, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. I was slowly developing musical tastes from my parents, along with an uncle who had lived next door, so it was not only about discovering new songs and artists, but to sit in front of the phonograph and carrying the album cover, looking at it and wondering what was going on. What I saw on the cover of Mothership Connection was weird and peculiar: a smiling black man with make-up on his face, wearing shiny silver boots, spreading his legs in laughter while riding in an open-door UFO in space. Who was this man, and why is he so happy?
From the moment I heard these fictitious radio DJ’s in “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”, I couldn’t stop listening. I had never heard a radio show recreated in song, and this voice speaking from the unknown was a place I wanted to visit, it sounded like someone I could trust. There were three characters in the song: the unknown mellow man, the high-speed voice known as Lollipop Man (a/k/a The Long Haired Sucker), and the laid back man who dominates the song talking about doing it to you in your earhole and discovering people in the southern part of the United States lived bands like the Doobie Brothers, Blue Magic, and David Bowie. Being a kid, I could only understand what I had known so when he said ” but can you imagine Doobie in your funk?”, I knew what he was hinting at. My dad smoked, so when I heard him talking about a doobie, it wasn’t something from one of my dad’s Cheech & Chong records. Someone else talked about marijuana cigarettes, the world I experienced was not exclusive. Outside of hearing about Lollipop Man, “P. Funk” introduces another character to the Parliament empire, someone named Starchild, and we were tuned to stick around and “tune in”, to wait and see what this Starchild was about.
The title track to Mothership Connection began and it too was a mock radio show, and as I’m looking at the album cover, I could only imagine this guy with silver boots going around in outer space, looking around for good music and good times while listening to the best music around. Starchild introduced himself to the citizens of the universe, but he could easily be referring himself as a citizen as well, making the world he spoke to not focused on one, but for all. However, he was also getting a bit social and cultural by saying “We have returned to claim the pyramids”. At the time, I had no idea what that meant or why this cool martial was talking about pyramids but through learning about the world and people around me, it would become clearer.
One thing I would realize later was that the first two songs on the album are not really proper songs, neither of them are verse/chorus/verse or even casually traditional. They were a bit like being in a car, finding a radio station that had music you liked and just kept it there for the duration, taking in whatever the DJ talked about to absorb the community he was speaking to. What made the song interest were the other references such as mentioning the Bermuda Triangle and Easter Island, along with the biblical reference “when Gabriel’s horn blows, you’d better be ready to go.” These were new things to me and again, not knowing what he was saying made the world described much more interesting, a need to figure out if he was speaking in code or would I eventually learn about why he talked about these things.
When I’d get deeper into the music of Parliament and Funkadelic, that’s when I learned about the social and political side of Clinton, someone who was more than willing to speak about how he and others lived or finding a way to simply live a regular life that isn’t available to everyone on Earth. Clinton and the other members were often direct and to the point but they made it fun by throwing in slang and odd references that would make listeners go “oh, so THAT is what he’s singing about?” As the song ends with a nod to a well known gospel song, it slowly became clear what this Mothership was about and why it was called the Mothership. It was a vehicle where people from the motherland are able to ride together as one, without fear or harm, where everyone is able to find out how they are connected as a united force, whatever that force may be. “Swing down, sweet chariot stop and let me ride” was merging the hymns and metaphors of the past and bringing it to modern times in the hopes of celebrating a much better future. By asking if they could “let me ride”, it was a nice way of saying “please, I am a good person, welcome me in”. He knew if this mothership is as good natured as he had heard, he will find others within the community who is just like him. It’s a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that many of us look to finding throughout our lives, but the idea is to keep that vibe intact.
It would take three songs before Mothership Connection has a proper song, the excellent “Unfunky UFO” and it is when we realized the unidentified flying object on the cover was not as cool as we had thought, and why? The chorus hits things accurately, without hesitation: Unfunky kind of UFO
here from the sun
you’ve got the groove and we want some
We’re unfunky and we’re obsolete
and we’re out of time
gonna take your funk and make it mine
Why is Clinton and friends saying he’s obsolete and out of time? If Starchild is a man traveling from the future in a Doctor Who fashion, perhaps he wants to tell everyone that they have to unite for a better cause, whatever the cause may be. Some of the cause is explained in the verse, sung by Bootsy Collins and Glen Coins: Stupidly, I forced a smile
my composure was secure
I wore a silly grin from ear to ear
a smile they saw right through
Oh, but then like a streak of lightning it came
Filling my brain with this pain
Without saying a word, this voice I heard
“Give up the funk, you punk”
The song sounds like a track to dance and get down to but the lyrics show there is a much more serious manner at stake. Combined with the horn arrangement, it could be a spirited song, which it is, but there’s much more going on than wondering why this UFO is unfunky. Or is it that the inhabitants of this unfunky UFO are looking for a means to steal the funk from a land where its riches are fully known?
Side 2 begins with “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication (The Thumps Bump)” and while the song is not in the verse/chorus/verse format either, it is not like “P. Funk” or “Mothership Connection”, there is no radio aircheck involvement. Instead, it’s a musical call to arm of sorts. Three years later, Funkadelic released One Nation Under A Groove and asked people to “pledge a grooveallegiance to the funk of the United Funk of Funkadelica”, but you could say an early declaration for this nation was made here: Give the people what they want when they want
and they wants it all the time
give the people what they need when they need
and the need is yours and mine
When you hear the singers say “throw-down, baby do the throw-down”, it seems they are seeking and finding what they want in order to feel that goodness throughout the existence. It’s something worth fighting for.
When I first heard “Handcuffs”, I did not like it as much as the rest of the song for it sounded forced to me, or if they were trying to say something and I wasn’t ready to understand it. The song deals with sexism in a way that perhaps the band had never done before. If people had thought it seemed weird for these guys to be doing a song so blunt about the battle of the sexes, it was co-written by a lady Clinton had made in Los Angeles, Janet McLaughlin. Or at least she was given co-songwriting for the song, which happens to be the only song in their entire catalog that she gets credit for. Upon going through the lyrics, it seems she played a very important role for while the lyrics may come off like a bitter (if not sexist) joke, it’s meant to provoke thought, not laugh at: If I have to keep you barefoot and pregnant
to keep you here in my world
get down and take off your shoes
girl, I’m gonna do to you
what it is I’ve got to do
If we’ve been bonding like you say that we do
I think you won’t mind if I’d be possessive, now would you?
your preach about loving, you know it is to blame
that’s why I can ask you and not even feel ashamed
One day before the 40th anniversary of the album, there has been one lyric that has bugged me for most of my life. Since he is on Twitter, I decided to ask George Clinton what he was singing, since it is he who is on vocals. I always wanted to know what exactly “can go to hell”, for it was unintelligible to my ears. A few hours later, Clinton was nice enough to solve my mystery:
I don’t care about looking like a chauvinistic kinda whatever
aw, corny can go to hell
and if I find that I need some help
gonna pull out my chastity belt
what it is, I’ve got to do
In the song, the song is much stronger than originally realized, the battle of the sexes explored. As the song began to be understood a bit more, it got more soulful and funkier and showed that the perceived space travels of the front cover was more earthbound.
“Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” became the big hit on the album and it works on a number of levels, despite it not being in the traditional verse/chorus/verse format either. It might seem like there’s a verse thrown throughout but to my ears, it comes off more like nothing but cool choruses, pieced together to make a dance proclamation. The response from the singers is made for listeners to repeat it but what really makes the song work is Collins’ bass lines, intermingling with the rest of the band, made tight by the horn section, all pulled in by the importance of Bernie Worrell’s counter-melodies. At one point, it seems like there are three or four different groups involved in the song and perhaps that’s exactly what Clinton was trying to do, not really knowing who is who or where things begin or end.
On a side note, I remember reading something somewhere that while there were a full cast of musicians on the back cover, Collins was involved into the music more than we realized, including drums and guitar work in some songs. He’s credited with everytong on the cover but in a way, despite having a cast of over 20 people on the album, it could have easily be done by a small group of six or seven. Collins will forever be known as an important bass guitarist but his time in the recording studio was much more than just limiting himself to the four string. (NOTE: Collins didn’t play bass in “Give Up The Funk”, that song was done with Cordell Mosson.)
Despite “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples” not having any true lyrics, I always found Mothership Connection‘s closing track to be a personal favorite, not only for the groove but because the semi-instrumental had a Mini-Moog from Worrell that always reminded me of wet farts. I had never heard any song at 5 years old where someone could play a song with their ass so I’d laugh at it, thinking it was one of the greatest things to be made on a record.
Plus, the lyrics mean nothing and yet it does: ga ga goo ga
ga ga goo ga
ga ga, goo, ga ga
Who were these thumpasorus people and do they have other lifeforms in their habitat? Ga ga goo ga, ga ga goo ga, ga ga goo ga gaow, you know?
In one way, the album does not really have a unified theme like The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein or Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome do, the concept tends to fade a bit once Side 1 comes to an end. Mothership Connection begins by the listener discovering a frequency that can only be heard by a select few, only for the journeyman to head elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s the realization that the spaceman on the front cover is not in the mighty universe but as the back cover shows, he’s nothing more than a brother hanging out in a back alley somewhere with his ship held up by a piece of lumber or a plank.
In truth, the universal travels are something that, for now, can only be dreamed of and we can only think about the possibilities if we better our universe within our immediate vicinity, the connection we must seek in order for any of us to function as one, if at all possible. Perhaps in the distant future, our ancestors will be able to meet up with Sun Ra to understand why space is truly the place, a dimension where there is no limit. For now, we have to find solace in our dreams and wonder why reality can’t be as grand as the man on the cover with a shiteating grin and knee high boots.
On top of that, hearing a lot of “funk” in song was something I had never heard in my young live so I used to think they were singing naughty things. I mean, what did it mean to get “funked up” and “turn this mother out”? Maybe for some, funk was not a bad word but it sounded like they were getting away with cursing and I loved it. Sure, I read the cover and knew it was all about the funk and in a way, getting down just for the funk of it was like speaking in code, even though I couldn’t find any of my friends to speak in the same way. However, I knew if their records were available at Woolworth’s or other stores and being able to hear “Flashlight” on the radio, I knew George Clinton had to be someone to look up to. In many ways, Clinton was like a long distance funky uncle, if not a funky father and no matter where his travels went to next, he would still be there on the other side, waiting to speak in a way that comforted anyone who wished to understand the world around us.
Statistically, Mothership Connection went as high as #4 on Billboard’s R&B Album chart and #13 on Billboard’s Pop Album chart. It would be certified gold by the Recording Industrial Association of America (RIAA) four months after its release on April 26, 1976. The RIAA would raise their awards to sales of 1,000,000 and they created the platinum award in 1976. Therefore, Mothership Connection was also given a platinum award nine months after its release on September 20, 1976. On top of that, “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” was released as a single and it too sold 500,000 copies, leading to the RIAA giving the band a gold record for the 45 (their first gold single) on October 19, 1976.
Two other songs from the album were also released as singles: “P. Funk” and “Mothership Connection”, both being edits with the latter being titled “Star Child”. Both did not do well on the pop charts, which is why you generally hear “Give Up The Funk” on oldies radio station more than any other Parliament song. Nonetheless, the influence of Mothership Connection and the entire P.Funk empire on hip-hop continues to grow, with fans realizing that the games and puzzles Clinton and friends introduced in song were commonly enjoyed, celebrated, and deciphered. While Parliament had existed with three albums before this, it was with Mothership Connection that started what is called the P.Funk mythology, introducing different characters that would be explored in musical adventures for the next five years. For many of us, P.Funk was the ultimate comic book fantasy and we got a chance to see and hear it, even if only in musical form. With this album, we were somehow connected as one, hoping to find access to the mothership upon its inevitable arrival.
The first time I saw The Jets on TV, I freaked out. I didn’t know who they were or where they were from but the first time i said was “wait a minute: they look like me. They have my same nose and they make good music that I like. Who are they?” It was for their first video “Curiosity” and as for comparing noses, it was a Polynesian thing. I’m Hawaiian and I would learn that they are Tongan. How in the world did a Tongan singing group have a hit song and video and on top of them, how in the hell were they signed to one of the biggest record labels of the 1980’s, MCA? MCA stood for “Music Corporation of America” but due to how much music they released and how much did not sell, they were nicknamed the “Music Cemetery of America” but The Jets were signed, so there had to be a reason. Someone felt they were going to profit from them and “Curiosity” felt like something that would be one of the biggest songs of 1985. For me, it felt like it. Keep in mind that for soul/R&B, 1985 was the year of debut albums by Whitney Houston, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, and Full Force, plus successful albums from Sade, The Mary Jane Girls, DeBarge, and Freddie Jackson, plus new albums from New Edition and Grace Jones. So just who were these guys and girls from Minneapolis, and will there be more Tongans on my TV?
The Jets were a family group consisting of the Wolfgamm’s: sisters Elizabeth, Moana, and Kathi, plus brothers Eddie, Eugene, Haini, Leroy, and Rudy. At the time, it wasn’t odd to see a group playing instruments compared to now, where everything may be done by others in a recording studio. They were like bands like Full Force, Klymaxx, and being from Minneapolis, they perhaps were on their way to being as prosperous as Prince & The Revolution or The Time. The group had done local talent shows and hosted their own Polynesian act, where they played a wide range of different island styles, and called themselves Quazar. However, their love of soul and pop came from their parents and what they listened to in the house, so it was natural for them to include it as a part of their shows. When it was the soul and pop getting attention from audiences, they realized that perhaps they should not only form a group but give it a proper name, which was given to them by their manager, Don Powell. Powell had worked with David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, which meant he was considered a success. By working with him, he suggested they should change their name to something he came up with, thus The Jets.
Their debut album came out when the media was talking about “The Minneapolis sound”, when everyone wanted to know what Prince was making, how and why. They also wanted to know back then if Prince was actually making the music, with some believing he could not be… well, not so much “not as talented”, but if he actually played the guitar at all. Little did they know Prince not only played the guitar, but bass, drums, keyboards, and a wide range of other instruments. He also sang in many octaves, wrote his own material, and was a producer who was capable of engineering his work, although he did used outside help to be sure his music was the best around. Not only that, but it was learned Prince played most of the music on The Time’s first two albums along with background vocals, and the first and only album by The Time. Prince was a multi-everything so once people realized of his capabilities, the media wanted to know more about him after the massive success of Purple Rain and if there were others behind him. For a short time, The Jets were contenders but in truth, they were very much part of the Minneapolis Sound, however small, and it began with this album.
When they went into the studio, they worked with producer David Rivkin, with Powell assisting. Rivkin was known amongst Minneapolis musicians not only for his work, but he’s the brother of Bobby Z., longtime member of Prince’s band which became The Revolution.
As far as material to record, none of The Jets were songwriters so Powell didn’t have to go too far to find some people to work with. Two of the people he worked with for songs are Aaron Zigman and Jerry Knight. Knight was a member of Raydio (Ray Parker Jr.’s group) and Zigman had done his share of songwriting, including songs by Johnny Gill, Lakeside, and Carly Simon, so Zigman and Knight worked together extensively. It makes sense that three of the four singles from The Jets’ debut were all Zigman & Knight songs, there was a formula and it worked.
One of the Zigman & Knight songs was “Curiosity”, with a synthesized bassline that was not unlike what Prince played in “Erotic City” so while the group had no connection with Mr. Nelson, there was an obvious city vibe going on. Maybe everyone influenced once another but whatever the sound was in Minneapolis, it was very much a part of what they played. In the video, when they walked out of the classrooms, I thought to myself “oh damn, these people got their own style”, then it became “oh, these Tongans have a swagger.” For me, I had just started the 10th grade and I know I said “I don’t have people like The Jets at my school. If I did, I would write about them.” What worked about the song was the background vocals from the ladies in the group, with Elizabeth taking the lead but what worked amazingly was the bridge when they sang, with a slight soulful accent:
“baby, I don’t want to be just a play thang
baby, I got to have it all”
To me, the way they sang “I got to have it all” reminded me of Jermaine Stewart’s “The Word Is Out”, specifically during the chorus when he sang “that you and I are lovers/that you and I are lovers/that you and I been getting it on”. Add to that the chicken scratch of the guitar from Leroy and it sounded like they were ready to be a massively huge group, they wanted to compete and they did. I’m sure the extras within the song were aided with assistance from Zigman and Knight, but that’s what made it work.
BTW: when Elizabeth split herself in two in the video, I was magically hoping she would come out of the TV so we could go out. Only in my head.
It was their second hit from the album that became not only the most successful of the four singles, but remains the song The Jets are known for. What works is while lead singers Elizabeth and Moana were teenagers, it was written by Zigman & Knight in a way that would appeal to everyone, you could be 40 and realize what it meant to have a crush on someone. It wasn’t just a song about puppy love, it was written as a way to say no matter how old or young you are, you’re able to feel something that may be meaning full. What also worked was when Elizabeth and Moana would trade lead duties briefly, with Moana’s high falsetto taking over during the third line:
“You must have heard it from my best friend
she’s always talkin’ when she should be listenin’
can’t keep a secret to save her life
but still I trusted her with all I felt inside
I never knew, a rumor could spread so fast
‘Cause now the word is out all over town
that I’m longing for you
“Maybe I was the one who left the trace
was there a message written on my face?
were my emotions so easily read
that you would know my love before a word was said
was it my eyes that let you know you had control?
because the way you move was so self-assured
you knew I would surrender”
The song worked off of two verses and that was it, and an addictive chorus that would also help the song and the group crossover to the pop charts. They pulled fans in and kept them there.
The Jets’ fourth single was a ballad, and it happened to be a Rupert Holmes composition. Holmes is the man who wrote ” “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” so they felt if he could write one of the biggest songs of the 1970’s, The Jets would be successful too with one of his contributions. It was the first Jets song to feature a saxophone solo, which was fitting of the time since every other hit song or artist had one sax solo somewhere. While the video shows it as being played by Eddie, I still have a feeling it is not him playing that specific solo, despite being fully capable of doing it.
My favorite part of the song is during the chorus at the end, when you hear Elizabeth’s voice getting a lot of reverb and she sings “honey it’s true, there’s just you” and the song gradually fades. While the video and song very much had a 60’s vibe going for it, it was very much 80’s too. On top of that, while YouTube doesn’t show the beginning of it, every day will remember when the guys were looking in the jukebox, deciding on what song to play and all of them uniting in saying they wanted to play “H-3”. For a lot of Hawaiians, that referred to the then-unfinished highway that up until that point, had not finished after almost 30 years.
Side 1 of the album ended with “Love Umbrella”, which also was the first Jets song to feature a lead vocal by a male voice, in this case Eugene. There was always something extra in the way he sang his vocals and perhaps that had a lot to do with being raised in Minneapolis. If anything, it is why when he left the group and become one half of Boys Club, their music stood out on its own.
After the success of “Crush On You” on the R&B and pop charts, MCA Records wanted to be sure to keep fans aware of the group so instead of releasing “You Got It All” as a single, they decided to give them something slightly similar with another uptempo song, and it was indeed another Zigman/Knight composition. The lead was from Elizabeth, which included the falsettos and at a time when going to an actual phone still mattered, it was a time when The Jets also had their own phone line where you were able to hear the hottest news about the group.
Miles Waters and Peter Vale were with the group L’Equipe but had worked successfully to write songs for Sheena Easton, which is why they were used to contribute a song, “Heart On The Line”. Perhaps Rivkin and Powell felt that since the song before had to do with calling a private number, the listener should keep that person on the line and have a male’s perspective. Eugene handles the lead for this one and for me at least, his lead and vocal harmonies sounded a lot like other pop and soul music from Hawai’i, that vibe that comes from either being where they were from or singing amongst family members.
“Right Before My Eyes” was written by David Paul Bryant and Dean Chamberlain and while it doesn’t list who does the lead vocal, it doesn’t quite sound like Eugene so I’ll guess that it was done by Rudy, with nice harmonies from Elizabeth and Moana. To be honest, this sounds very much like an album track that works within its own context and settles in nicely in the program.
The the album has a cover version and that honor is given to The Delphonics’ “La La Means I Love You”, the lead of which is shared by Elizabeth and Rudy, where they not only trade the lead but also get a chance to sings quite nicely together. While it may sound odd for a brother and sister to sing together in a love song, Debra Laws recorded the hit “Very Special” with her brother, Ronnie Laws. This could have easily been released as its own single too but I think The Jets and their managers wanted to continue to establish the group as their own entity. The song also helped show the parents of their fans how they’re connected with the older music they grew up with.
The album closes with “Mesmerized”, written by keyboardist Joey Gallo and producer Wardell Potts, both of whom worked with Shalamar, The Whispers, and Carrie Lucas, with Potts also being a member of the group Dynasty. By listening to this song, if this sounds as if it could’ve been perfect in the hands of Howart Hewett, now you know the reason. With Eugene handling the vocals, it’s an okay way to end a good album but I think it would’ve been more effective with a song that shared the lead with Elizabeth or Moana or have all of them unite. The album ends, fades out and you’re left with wondering “wait, is that it?” Maybe the album was not designed to be as solid as other artists, it could’ve been nothing more than a collection of talents, not something with a more solid beginning, middle and end.
With the nine songs that make up the album, it works very nicely and showed that the group could easily record more music with possible hits. They followed it up with a Christmas album before doing their third LP, Magic, with a song made for the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop II, “Cross My Broken Heart”. In between this, they worked with the Kool-Aid company and released an exclusive cassette single that would not be released anywhere else. The group would continue to tour for a few more years, with Eugene leaving the group to become Gene Hunt and become a part of the duo Boys Club. The group ended up recording four albums before taking a brief break from the mainstream spotlight, and maybe that had to do with their hit songs becoming less chart-worthy. It also had to do with the group not being happy with their manager, as Powell had been accused of taking money from the group’s earnings, which would sometimes leave them broke. Trying to keep yourselves together as a group, especially when you’re all in the same family, was a bit too much and they chose to take a break.
Elizabeth did make an attempt to record a solo album in 1995 with producer Brian Blosil (Marie Osmond’s husband) when she would have been 23 but that project never was released. However, she would continue to do tracks with sister Moana for a few compilations. She had breast cancer as well, which did slow her down for a bit. Once her health made her capable of performing, she still does shows when her brothers and sisters decide to reunite The Jets every now and then.
In the end, the group released 16 singles, 12 of which were successful, 6 of which were on the Top 20 R&B charts (4 of those in the top 10), 5 of which were on the Top 10 Pop charts, and 2 of which actually topped the Adult Contemporary charts, not bad for a group who were primarily targeted to teens. The group’s popularity began to fade when they released the first single (“You Better Dance”) from their fourth album, which coincided with the end of the 1980’s and the start of the new decade. Despite never making a fifth album, all of their hits are still remembered by fams who still keep their memories alive through their songs. While “Crush On You” is arguably their post popular song, it was “You Got It All” that went as high as #2 on the R&B Singles chart and was one of the two songs that topped the Adult Contempoary chart. Regardless of chart statistics, it shows how much of an impact they did make on the charts and most importantly the fans, who will still do the choreography from the videos when they hear the song on the radio and think of the crushes they may have had on members of the group, as I did back in 1985 when I had a thing for Elizabeth. We’re all older now but fans of the group will never forget the power of the debut album that kept them in our collections and on the wall when you bought a Jets poster (as my sister did).
To say that this record is one of the best and most underrated releases of 1985 and the entire decade of the 1980’s is an understatement. It’s my way of saying that the debut release from Fishbone was something that I could not keep myself from. If the first half of the 80’s featured a number of brand new musical discoveries for me, then this was easily the crossroads that put me over into a new territory, for a number of reasons.
The first time I heard of Fishbone was through the video for “? (Modern Industry)”, which at the time I felt was one of the oddest songs due to its lyrical content: WBRU, KABE, WFLY, Cool 92
KAX, KOKE, KRO
WAMX, YES, WOW!
The majority of the song was nothing but radio station call letters and as Angelo Moore says during the chorus: This is the music behind the machine
These are the voices of modern industry
As someone who loved the power of radio, enough to where my childhood dream of being a radio disc jockey became true when I joined the Radio/Television Production class at the local vocational skills center during high school, hearing this was a dream. It was a song about the radio that I would never hear on any local radio stations, which made it even better. Yet it wasn’t just the call letters that moved me, it was the attitude of the band and especially the musicianship, these guys rocked. One would never expect a band who looked like them to play music like that, but outside of Los Angeles, who would expect anyone to look like that? These guys were punk rock and new wave in their own world and I had to have more.
The next time I heard them was with their follow-up video, or at least that’s how I had seen it before. One video may have been made before or after the other and “Party At Ground Zero” looked independent compared to the major label clout of “? (Modern Industry)”. Then again, unless you were Michael Jackson, black artists in the 80’s were lucky to have any level of a music video budget, look at how homemade Atlantic Starr’s video for “Secret Lover” looked, followed with “If Your Heart Isn’t In It”. One wasn’t expected to be a pop hit, one showed the after effect. Nonetheless, “Party At Ground Zero” was incredible for it started off somewhat low-key and mellow and about a minute into the song, it interrupts itself by going to a major shift in vibe and attitude: Party at ground zero
every movie starring you
and the world will turn to flowing pink vapor stew
All of a sudden, it was a ska basement party we all wanted to find ourselves in, a tasteful song about being in some kind of apocalyptic realm where during a time of utter chaos, all you can do is party. Or as Frankie Goes To Hollywood once said in the liner notes for one of their albums, “get off your dance, we’re all going to the same grave” so if the end is truly coming, end it by gyrating our bottoms.
I just loved what these guys were going, how they were coming off so I went to the local record stores to find this self-titled EP on Columbia Records. I could not find it and I found myself frustrated. I was in my mid-teens, going out of town to Seattle for school clothes or just a visit out of town was common. I always made sure that we would go to Tower Records since I had made that place “a home away from home” when I visited Tower regularly when I lived in Honolulu. All of a sudden, there it was: the tape. In time, I would eventually discover for the next six years that my Fishbone purchasing tasks were always out of town. Despite me assuming their music was getting more popular due to seeing their videos on BET and MTV, I guess since I live in a “small market” town, their music was never sold here, or at least I never noticed them. If it wasn’t in Seattle at Tower on 5th & Mercer or in the U-District, it was in Portland at the Tower on 82nd. If not there, maybe I’d lever buy their Christmas EP It’s A Wonderful Life in Spokane at Eli’s. Before the easy access of MP3 files and now streams, if you really wanted the music of a band one liked, you had to make the effort, or at least “the effort” was a bit more difficult than it is these days. I found myself loving Fishbone and I enjoyed buying their music by going long distance, at least before 1991 when I finally became a part of Columbia Records’ promotional mailing list and was able to get Fishbone advance tapes and CD’s for free. I’m jumping ahead of myself in this story.
The union between Angelo Moore, Philip “Fish” Fisher and brother Norwood Fisher, Kendall Jones, Christopher Dowd, and Walter A. Kibby II was something that could not quite be understood despite reading about it. They were all young kids from South Central Los Angeles enjoying the kind of music most kids from South Central weren’t exactly listening to. They loved soul, funk, and jazz, with Moore with his love of the saxophone and Norwood getting down with the funky bass but learning how to play those instruments was a process in itself. They gathered together just to jam and party, the idea of doing it for a living really didn’t happen until later. However, as other kids saw this “disparate, all-black oddball crew” having fun and at times taking themselves seriously, that’s when they started to do more shows throughout L.A. and eventually California. They seemed to fit in with what the Suicidal Tendencies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faith No More were going, mixing up soul and funk in odd ways, but also bringing in ska, reggae, punk, and metal. At that time, ska music was considered “white man’s reggae” partly because no one bothered to discover ska was a pre-cursor to reggae. Thus, for a short time, Fishbone were considered a band playing “white man’s reggae”. In truth, the band who were one of the most successful groups who played white man’s reggae was not The Specials or Madness, but The Police. Their album Reggatta de Blanc was called that for a reason. It was a different time but for the weirdness people saw and heard in Fishbone, it lead to them being signed by Columbia Records, where they ended up working with producer David Kahne, a relationship that would last for years.
The EP begins with “Ugly” and it became the best way one could start off their debut release. Boy. you’ve got no method to control us all
for the mentalities are not that small
and now you’re thinking’ that you have won
but the revolution has just begun
It was their way of saying their music revolution is here and they are ready to attack whenever necessary, while also touching on social conditions while briefly making a pop culture reference to Dennis The Menace.
If the music of Fishbone may have seemed out of wack to some, their lyrics showed a very strong sense of maturity that perhaps showed subtle hits of what Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, and Bob Marley were doing: making statements that touch on how someones regular sense of living is interrupted just because they are not within the community of someone else. Another trend to follow, another word to linger on
they may not even know the reasons why
you think without a vision, and then they try to call it ours
and it’s causin’ me to culture shock
It’s not saying they have created their own world, but due to personal interpreations and misconceptions, they were outsiders. In truth, it may have been a need to just fit in but they were more than happy to fit with whomever was willing to take them in, or to simple state “this is us, this is who we are and always will be and if you don’t like it, fuck off, we’ll find a place to call home because someone will welcome us.”
If there’s a song that was just outright foolishness, then that would have to be “V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F.”, featuring a lead vocal from Walter Kibby Jr. The initials stand for “Voyage To The Land Of The Freeze Fried Godzilla Farts” and if anything in the song makes some level of sense, it’s the chorus: It take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
it take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
it take a big bean but butte, we’ll surely rumble
King Kong will fall as will the great wall
and the whole damn town will crumble
However, Norwood states the song is actually about nuclear war, even though the lyrics state Godzilla is going to come in and do his damage, whether it be with his feet or his flatulence, we are uncertain but one thing is certain: everyone will be scared.
The EP closes with “Lyin’ Ass BitcH”, which features Lisa Grant helping out on vocals and while the title suggests the guys in Fishbone were on the misogynistic, the song was actually condemning the treatment some men give to women. As Norwood Fisher said in a 1985 magazine interview: “(the song) isn’t ragging on women, it’s making fun of all that macho balderdash.” She swears that her heart’s for you
and she swears that her love never ends
she swears that she’s all for you
as she messes around with your friends
I really thought our love was much too strong
but that little slut just proved us Wrong
I still care and that’s my fatal flaw
cause sharing you will surely kill us all
When the song was performed as Michelle Bachmann’s walk-out music during her appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, some people in the viewing audience who watched knew the song laughed, even though no one in the group sung the lyric “you’re nothing but a little lying ass bitch”, it was just the “la, la la la, la la la la la la” part. Nonetheless, the damage was done, The Roots’ drummer and band leader Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson was put in temporary “detention” and had things went a different way, The Roots may have been pulled off as the show’s band. They are now the official band for The Tonight Show and the song’s suggested for walk-out music for guests are “carefully monitored.”
Fishbone’s self-titled debut EP was a few seconds short of what was considered “album length” at the time (27 minutes) for if it was a second over 26:59, it would have been an album (a short album at that). Nonetheless, what Fishbone created in that frame of time was a revolution of sorts that had begun, even if they weren’t one of its leaders. For the next ten eyars, the band recorded some of the best music in their lives and best music ever made, whether it be the advanced fun they displayed on their debut album In Your Face, the next wave of intensity with Truth And Soul or the incredible genius that was their best album, The Reality Of My Surroundings or the last album to feature Kendall Jones and Christopher Dowd, the powerful yet emotional Give A Monkey A Brain And He’ll Swear He’s The Center Of The Universe, which also became their last album with Columbia. The group had hits but not solid pop hits like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Jane’s Addiction. They were always the band that could’ve or should’ve and it had seemed they were always on the verge of being ready. While that major success never happened, they didn’t bother waiting for anyone to say they are relevant, revolutionaries didn’t have time. In truth, they remain a band who are willing to execute any level of boredom within a room or even themselves, and it “began” in that small room on the cover of that EP, incredibly cramped, just like their music.
In 1985, I was aware of who Todd Rundgren was, for he was a member of Utopia and Nazz, both of which had its share of airplay on MTV, along with the small handful of his own stuff that was played. Radio in Honolulu may have played its share of Rundgren’s solo work but between December 24, 1981 and June 10, 1984, much of my listening came through MTV.
However, it was one album that made me want to hear more Rundgren, and it was much more than because he is “Todd Rundgren.” A Cappella (Reprise) was an album that seemed unusual upon release but considering everything that has come along since then, this album essentially helped pave the way for a lot of great music in the last 30 years. Up until September 10, 1985, producers using sample-based technology did it in an intricate and delicate manner, for one could only sample less than two seconds at a time, and it had to be “played” live. What made A Cappella work was the fact it was promoted as an album where every sound came from his mouth. The title suggest that he was a singer, and he is. He not only did the lead vocals, but all of the harmonies. Not only that, but he vocalized bass lines and filtered his voice tracks so it would sound like keyboards. To make it more interesting, he also was a human beat box by creating snares, bass drums, and hi-hats. Early reviews suggested Rundgren only did the vocals, but he did every sound heard, which seemed like an impossibility, especially in rock circles. It may have been the norm in dance and pop circles, and Frank Zappa’s use of Fairlight’s and Synclavier’s wasn’t understood, partly because no one knew what he was doing with 25K dollar keyboards. What Rundgren did was use an E-mu emulator along with multi-track recording and did something that only a select few knew about. The word “sampling” wasn’t even in use yet but that is what Rundgren was doing in part for this album, sampling himself.
As someone who worshiped the Art Of Noise, A Cappella was mind-blowing because at the time, while I partly understood what he was doing, I didn’t understand *how* he did it in full. I understood the multi-track dubbing techniques, but I used to say “I hear drums and claps, so this thing is not really all from his voice.” Oddly enough, I’d make my own tapes at the same time, sometimes using my Casio SK-1 and while that was lo-fi compared to an emulator, I’d say “psssst” and “kk” and play that rhythmically, which is when I realized what Rundgren was doing. When you overdub one song, a “kk” can turn into a group of people clapping. I was someone who listed to not only a lot of Art Of Noise in the early and mid-80’s, but Kraftwerk. My love of electronic music was only held back by not being able to afford the toys that would make it possible to play it. However, as someone who had wanted a 4-track cassette recorder but knowing how to do pause-tape mixing, I had a sense of how to do it the poor man’s way.
Around the same time, the production in rap music was also drastically changing, go listen to LL Cool J’s first album, also from 1985. That album became a timepiece as a way to say “you know what you had known about the music before this, now you’re going to hear what it’s going to sound like now.” Go listen to Run-DMC’s King Of Rock, the Krush Groove soundtrack, or even the first UTFO. You may not feel there is a link between these albums and something by Todd Rundgren but there is a connection in terms of recording technology. Everyone was upping their game, some intentionally, others just to be adventurous. Once the adventure was heard and understood, there wasn’t any holding back.
The album only went as high as #128 on Billboard, which means it was a flop compared to his previous albums. Some of the songs have been covered, while “Hodja” became an influence for the theme to the ALF cartoon from 1987. A Cappella was very much a midway point for the decade and while it is often ignored by those who expect to talk about albums by Prince, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen but this album is easily one of the best albums of not only 1985, but of the entire decade.
“…cause we’ve all loved something and lost it
and it’s burning my heart
I can’t open my mouth and just let it out”
What lead to the prompt release of this album was when rough tapes were released as a bootleg, credited to Runt and called Acappella. Even then, no one was sure if this was just demos of a bigger project or if this was the final album but brisk sales lead Warner Bros. to make sure the mixes were up to par and release it promptly. Rundgren had been on Bearsville Records for years but the label shut itself in 1984, which lead Warner Bros. to release the album, leading Rundgren to his first “proper” album on a major.
When the album started, it was uncertain what the album would sound like. What sounded like a keyboard was his voice altered just a bit before you hear a Rundgren vocal quartet, then the “cha cha cha”. All of a sudden, the vocal bass and the vocal drums came through and in a few seconds, a thumping drum beat. This sounded nothing like what I had heard before, and definitely nothing like what I had known Rundgren for with songs like “Hideaway”, “Hammer In My Heart”, and “Time Heals” but looking back, the harmonies are in common. The lyrics are metaphorical, covering on what Orpheus is, a Greek mythological figure who was known for “his ability to charm all living things”. The lyrics touch on ones self-doubt or the other side of happiness, having fears and unsure of what will happen next. In the first verse, Rundgren describes the theme of the album:
“but you have a gift that the rest of us just can’t live without
and it’s something in your voice when you tell us how you feel”
In other words, there’s a sense of confidence he has and he chooses to share it with the talent of singing. Within the song, he shows the song may not only be about him but also of a loved one who he hopes he will find, or hoping she will find the one she longs for:
“Sing, you will one day be together again
though you can not see her
she is somewhere in the world”
Thus it’s the start of a journey, to see what he looks for and perhaps what he will find at its end.
“Johnee Jingo” begins with foot stomps and claps, all vocalized and the harmonies are full and lush. It sounds like an old R&B group hanging on the corner and like many of those original songs, this one has a message about a 15-year old kid who joins the military for the sake of having the opportunity to do something better in life, but soon discovers what he gives is often not thanked or acknowledged:
“and the throne, the pulpit, and the politician
Create a thirst for power in the common man
It’s a taste for blood passed off as bravery
or just patriotism hiding bigotry”
What I always loved about the song is the bridge, where there’s an obvious shift before it carries itself to the end.
“Pretending To Care” could easily be something done in the R&B tradition as well, very much originating in doo-wop’s roots, as the harmonies that open the song tend to shape what you’re meant to feel and experience from listening to it. The song is about a mixture of self-doubt or wondering if the affecting he feels is genuine. The chorus is easily one of the ebst things Rundgren has ever written:
“If I was blind would you still be my eyes
or hide everything you see
pretending to care about me
When all the time, you’re just wishing I’d fade away
you just can’t bring yourself to say”
One line I could relate to is when he sings “though I’m ashamed to be afraid, I just can’t help myself, can’t help myself” because there have been moments in my life where I hesitated to do things and I’d often question why I’d hold myself back when all I’d have to do is just do it and get it over with.
When I first heard “Hodja”, I had no idea what he was singing about but completely understanding that the song is joyous, not only in what he’s singing about but how he sings. In Muslim philosophy, a hodja is someone who makes a pilgrimage to seek and find devotion, so he is on his journey to find a sense of happiness, whatever it may be:
“Hodja, please show me how to spin now
Hodja, please show me how you do it
all the other boys are laughing at me again now
Hodja, please show me how you do it
whenever I talk they don’t hear a thing
and everyone laughs when I sing
Hodja, please show me how to spin
I want to do that dance ’til I forget where I am
so get up out of your bed one more time
Hodja, make me spin”
The line that confused me for years is the bridge, for I used to think he used to say something about how “nirvana sings”, but that doesn’t quite make sense. The actual line is:
“from every alley in konya
Mevlana sings “turn around, turn around
you’ve got to spin ’til your feet leave the ground”
Mevlana refers to Rumi, a 13th century poet who also was considered a philosopher, mystic, theologian, and Islamic scholar, writing a lot of word that continues to be read, examined, and explored to this day. He once wrote a peace about the universal message of love, and perhaps Rundgren is trying to seek that oneness, by exploring different philosophies and finding that commonality that everyone searches for. Those subtle references to the spiritual throughout the album is almost unknown until you decide to single out what you may not understand, then discover the album is a blueprint for what many of us try to find, that great unknown.
One of the more interesting influences this song has done was when NBC created a cartoon in 1987 for the TV character ALF, and the theme to the cartoon is pretty much pulled from what “Hodja” created.
The vocal instrumentation returns for this one in the song that ends Side 1, a bit of a humble outlook on what life means, what one is still trying to find but pondering on the existence of everything surrounding us. “Lost Horizon” is one of these songs that may bring to mind what one might thing when you’re staring out into the ocean or in an open field, just taking everything in and trying to find some level of inner peace for the moment. In this case, it’s about finding what feels like love but still wondering if what is being felt is strong enough or just a passing phase:
“I had always believed that you and me
were connected by destiny
but the time never came
it sounds so lame
Is it all just my vanity?
am I the only one to feel the sun
exactly the way I do?
when you sang how you felt I’d tell myself
maybe someday I’ll sing with you”
The theme of the album pops up again, a reason to sing, a reason to open ones mouth as a means to let out what you feel, even though sometimes we hold back due to the fears he lock on to.
It may seem funny now but if the mainstream knows only one song from this album, it would be the one released as a single, “Something To Fall Back On.” Arguably, it would be the only accessible song on A Cappella but it did not work for 1985 audiences. Did it have anything to do with Rundgren self-directing his video, not at all for he had been doing that for years. The video may seem low-budget but being made during a time when music video budgets from record labels were becoming an extravagant thing, “Something To Fall Back On” was a bit on the public access side and was probably not considered worthy by some people. It got a small bit of airplay on BET but not enough to carry it to the upper half of the pop charts, despite the 60’s feel of the track that may have reminded people of the Beach Boys or mid-60’s Motown. The song was about feeling as if one is another person’s last resort, and wondering if that’s the only thing you will ever be:
“Remember when you were the talk of the town
and you didn’t care if I was around
but still you kept me in the back of your head
just like the teddy bear that you took to bed
I was only something to fall back on”
If there is one eccentric song on the entire album, it would have to be the somewhat freaky “Miracle In The Bazaar”. The song could easily be something pulled from some trippy progressive rock or Kraut rock album, complete with synthesized washes of sound, all created by the voice. What I loved about the song was the burst of energy, the explosive sound that happens at around the 0:50 mark before another “voice” stutters. Are we in a temple, a dome, is this meant to be a meditative piece or is it something more sacred or holy? He refers back to Rumi, whom he brought up in “Hodja” so it’s obvious a journey into something deeper:
“As jalaludin rumi has prophesied
this day allah
allah will make his presence known to you”
The song is not eccentric in content but musically, it is off center compared to everything else on the album and it’s safe to say it probably got airplay only on college radio stations, if even that. If anything, the placement in the album allowed the listener to truly listen, to attempt to figure out what he was singing about. Back in 1985, it wasn’t like how it is today where one can just do a Google search and find some sense of translation and interpretation, so “Miracle In The Bazaar” just became the weird song on the album, yet it is an essential part of the chain link that gets us from one point of the album to the other. Oddly enough, it leads us into something even freakier.
For “Lockjaw”, it may be the weird song found on a progressive album, as it’s about a mythical beast that finds children that lie to their parents and everyone else. The tale here is any child that is found to be a liar will have a rusty nail hammered into their jaw and suffer the consequences. It’s the equivalent of fearing the Boogie Man throughout our childhoods and if any kids listened to “Lockjaw”, I can’t imagine what type of visions they had in their minds after hearing this.
“Honest Work” is nothing but vocal harmonies, done in a fashion that could be a sea chanty of sorts, bringing up the metaphor of fear again in the song’s core:
“For I’m not afraid to bend my back
I’m not afraid of dirt
but how I fear the things I do
for lack of honest work”
The song gets into what is lost throughout life and wondering if ones on hard efforts will be of value to anyone, but also questioning if it matters to them:
“I know I’m not the only one to fall beneath the wheel
such company can not assuage the loneliness I feel
so many are resigned to be society’s debris
but I will be remembered for the life life took from me”
When the album gets to this point of the album, one wonders if there’s any hope for optimism but as the song reaches its conclusion, it leads to what may matter most to some.
In a song that explores personal and social love, perhaps the ending of A Cappella could only end with a song about a search that may be mighty and strong. It is a cover of The Spinners’ “Mighty Love”, which touches on those hopes and dreams, fear of some sense of failure and not discovering what you have been seeking, or some sense of solace. As the song says, that is the way love goes but there can be more if you keep at it:
“Some say that you’re sure to find true love and piece of mind
at the end of the rainbow, there’s no sign in the sky to follow
’cause that’s the way love goes
and so there’s a rhyme that says life will soon be fine
love is just what you make it
keep on loving, you’ll soon discover
a mighty love”
This is the point of the album where Rundgren’s one-man choir hits his gospel moment, where all of him has found the glory he had been looking for and he can’t stop singing, and it feels like it too. He would return to the gospel vibe four years later with the Nearly Human album and “I Love My Life”, this time with a real vocal choir and a band, but with “Mighty Love” it’s great to know it was Rundgren contributing everything from faithful hand claps to a feeling that may feel foreign to anyone who may not understand where it came from. Did it originate for Rundgren at a church in Philadelphia or did it come from his worldly travels and experience? By even questioning it, it hides the fact that a feeling, a good feeling, can be experienced by all, anywhere and regardless of where it’s found, the truth is that the feeling can be found, especially when that feeling is love. That feeling of love is celebrated by the power of the word, even if that world is vocalized in many variations, from singing to bass lines, keyboard blurbs and drum beats. Rundgren spent the whole album being able to open his mouth and letting it out, and he did so in a glorious manner.
A few things of interest. In 1985, Rundgren did an interview with Entertainment Tonight about how he created the album, and this was considered very weird since the majority of the world had no sense of how any of this worked. Computers weren’t just an everyday thing just yet and to be able to record your voice and play it? That was a fairly bizarre process. These days, we like to look at that episode of The Cosby Show where Stevie Wonder sampled the Huxtables and played their voices in the studio. Meanwhile, people like Rundgren explained how it was done here and was widely ignored by most who didn’t think Rundgren should make music like this. Art Of Noise member Jonathan “J.J.” Jeczalik showed how it was done in 1984 when he and the group appeared on the British music show The Tube, then used host Jools Holland to say a few things before his voice was played in a new version of “Beat Box”. When Chic member Nile Rodgers released his solo album B-Movie Matinee, he briefly spoke on how he’d use sounds taken from other movies, including the voice of actor Harrison Ford and it seemed no one could comprehend how he did it. Herbie Hancock was dabbling with it in the early to mid-80’s too, but what was considered freaky turned into influential hits. Rundgren was explaining it in detail but again, maybe it seemed like it was something only musicians are capable of doing. The compact disc was becoming the format of choice in 1985 and no one knew how a CD worked either, so being able to play a voice you just recorded was an outer space thing. Sample-based production would eventually become a major way of creating music for the next 30 years, and it’s safe to say those in the know heard A Cappella and said “if he can do that, maybe I can create something like this too.”
Before I begin to talk about an album that celebrates its 20th anniversary today, we have to go back a year before August 1, 1995.
In July 1994, The RZA showed he was much more than just being Prince Rakeem when he presented himself as The Rzarecta as a member of the Gravediggaz with Prince Paul, Frukwan, and Too Poetic. They released their debut album called 6 Feet Deep (countries outside of the U.S. called it Niggamortis) and some thought it was interesting The RZA was able to get himself on two albums, sounding distinctively different within both groups. The album was released early in some parts of the U.S., I found my copy at Tower Records in Portland, Oregon on 82nd, apparently a week or two before the rest of the country. We didn’t quite know what was to come but then the news surfaced.
As fans were beginning to absorb Gravediggaz’s album, LOUD/RCA Records released the soundtrack to Fresh, which featured solo songs from The Genius, Raekwon, and a remix of “Can It Be All So Simple”. The idea that The Genius had his own song seemed amazing, but then to hear Raekwon & Ghostface with their own track too? What was going on? On top of that, Raekwon and Ghost doubled up with a new version of what was one of the biggest hits of 1994, which got its share of airplay and mixtape circulation. I remember thinking “if The Genius has this song, his first new song since his failed debut, is there going to be more?” Also, how about Raekwon, will be be coming out with something?
When word came out that Method Man was signed to Def Jam to release his debut album, that’s when the first plans for the group were made known. In 1995, there would be three solo albums from the group, and each of them would be signed to their own label. Wu-Tang Clan were signed to LOUD/RCA. In rock circles, when a group splintered into making their own solo albums, they generally stayed within the same label: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash all stayed on Atlantic (for the time being) while Neil Young was already signed to Reprise. When Kiss dropped their solo albums on the same day in 1978, it was on Casablanca Records. Three different labels? No one in hip-hop had ever done that successfully but the Wu-Tang were make it out that every album would be a banger, every release would be a hit. X-Clan had Isis (Linque) and Professor X release albums on 4th & B’Way, while Digital Underground had Raw Fusion on HollywoodBASIC, Gold Money on Tommy Boy, and 2Pac on Interscope. Back then, 2Pac was just that guy who rapped in “Same Song” but by 1993, he already had a massive hit with “I Get Around”. 2Pac was not just that dancer from Digital Underground, he was 2Pac.
Did the Wu-Tang really know all of their solo albums would become a success? With the success of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it proved to them that fans would be willing to buy their music separately from the group, for if they were willing to buy one, maybe they were willing to get another, if not all. We would find out in 1995.
In March 1995, Elektra Records released Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers, which came out with the incredible “Brooklyn Zoo” a month before. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” seemed to have more appeal with the single version and later in the year, “Rawhide” was released as a single. As we moved closer to the summer, word had it that Raekwon’s solo album would be out soon, and he stayed home and was signed to LOUD/RCA as a solo artist. On June 27th, the label released “Criminology”/”Glaciers Of Ice” as a single, with the latter getting a video with massive airplay on BET. The song seemed quite complex and noisy, showing a style of production from The RZA that was more active than anything he had done in the past. It wasn’t as noisy as the words of The Bomb Squad but it was full and lush, if that’s a good way to describe it.
Soon after, a video for “Criminology” was released, showing Raekwon, Ghostface, The RZA, and U-God up by a waterfall and in kung fu gear, showing them incognito in a way they had never been seen before. For me, “Criminology” was the preferred song, incredibly funky and full of those string samples that were becoming very RZA at the time (a sound that Mobb Deep were also using with the orchestral samples). Around this time, LOUD/RCA released promotional commercials for Raekwon’s album showing segments of his videos and a man who did a voice-over that said “a chain is as strong as its weakest link”. The world would have to prepare for what was to come, whether they liked it or not.
The actual title for the album is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz but it was shortened to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, with the “…” to let people know something else was supposed to follow. At the time, I found myself wanting more CD’s than cassettes but for this album, I first heard it on cassette, the purple tape. What made this album distinctive was while Ghostface was already making himself (and his face) known in music videos, he was still hidden on the cover of this record, and he was “guest starring” so in many ways, it was a Raekwon and Ghostface album. However, upon first listens, it seemed like with various members heard throughout, it came off more like a group album than just a solo album and it was. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was originally planned as the follow-up to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) but during the recording sessions, when it was realized it would be more feasible to exploit the solo route, it became Raekwon’s debut.
One thing about the album should be known from the start. While it remains one of the best hip-hop albums of 1995, if not the entire decade of the 1990’s, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is not a concept album, far from it. There are loose streams of continuity here and there but it holds up primarily because it is a solid collection of incredible songs, and even those that are “weak links” still hold up. If there’s continuity throughout, one of the solid links is the production style and samples. You listen to Ol’ Dirty’s Return To The 36 Chambers and it sounds like a basement album. You listen to Method Man’s album and it sounds like a different type of basement album, one that allows itself to open the bedroom window for a breath of fresh air. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… sounds like an album of not only fresh air, but an imagination into another world, if not a dream state of what one could obtain and achieve. The idea of someone boiling up drugs on the oven to become a neighborhood chef could be considered but for me, that string of continuity came from the dialogue between songs and not the songs themselves.
If there’s a moment in the album where I felt things were about to pick up and stay there (or go higher), it would be when “Criminology” comes on. Or if that’s the point where the album moved into second gear, then I heard it, they were ready to go faster.
“Incarcerated Scarfaces” was a great song too, and it was released as a double A-sided single along with “Ice Cream” so if “Ice Cream” seemd too much (or perhaps too vulgar in tone) to some, they could tone down with the vibe of this one.
I was blown away by the vibe of “Rainy Dayz” and I am sure that a big part of it had to do with the vocals of Blue Raspberry. With her singing on Method Man’s debut, it seemed fitting that she would bless the tracks on Raekwon’s albums as well. Could she have been on Ol’ Dirty’s album? Sure, but I think ODB would’ve preferred his mom on the album. (He originally said he hoped to produce a single for his mom but that never materialized.) The funky, slightly sloppy drum samples, the strings in the background, and Ghostface talking about the cheese line while one of his lines seems removed from the song.
The album moves up with “Guillotine (Swordz)”, which sounded like something straight off of Method Man’s debut album due to the use of the same string sample. What I loved about this song is the movie sample, taken from Shaolin Vs. Lama, and the fact that the team of Raekwon, Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, and The Genius was perfect. Throughout the album, there would be certain groups of Wu members where I wish they would’ve made their own albums. That was fairly common throughout 1993-1997 so if we heard “Meth Vs. Chef”, we all wanted a full album of Meth and Raekwon battles. I wanted “Guillotine (Swordz)” forever.
The remix of “Can It Be All So Simple” originally released on the Fresh soundtrack found its way onto the album, but what made the album go to the next level was “Shark Niggas (Biters)”, which felt like the Sunz Of Man appearance that didn’t happen, or a song that could’ve found its way onto a Sunz Of Man album in between “Soldies Of Darkness” and “No Love Without Hate”. “Ice Water” was moving but while “Glaciers of Ice” was not as good to me as “Criminology” was as a single, it definitely fits in perfectly within the album.
Same for “Verbal Intercourse”. While a lot of fans often talk about Nas’ spot on the album was the best part of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, I was never huge on Nas’ royalty status but I always liked what he did, for he was the only outsider on the album.
Also, the best part of the song was not Nas’ verse but The Emotions’ sample of “If You Think It (You May As Well Do It)”. It seems like an awkward sample at first, because the vocal in the song is heard during the verses but that interruption in the song would become one of Ghostface’s production trademarks, where he would just rap over something else because he knew you were there to listen to him, not the damn sample. The RZA would often explore the Stax/Volt catalog throughout his career and what I liked too was that while the pop world would generally know The Emotions as a one hit wonder (“Best Of My Love”), he and others knew the group as having two solid albums before they made it bigger. It is those two albums that have become the source of a number of samples in hip-hop over the years. This song was just part of the contination of Emotions appreciation.
If the other songs earlier on the album didn’t prove it, “Wisdom Body” definitely made it clear that Ghostface was more than ready to not only release his own album but to have his own career. Not bad for someone who covered himself up in videos for “Method Man and “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”, to be on that “now you see me, now you don’t” before evolving into something you could always recognize. The song would become an underground down tempo groove that made you want to turn up, nod your head and just go “damn”.
“Spot Rusherz” was another great song because it’s one of the few spots where the group offered a way to hear the group’s St. Ides’ radio spot/commercial. I know I was someone who wished that St. Ides track was two to three minutes longer, but what makes “Spot Rusherz” works was how everything just sounds off, from the warped piano/keyboard sample to drums that are unsure of where it needs to place itself. If anything, the group showed they could be self-promotional, not only delivering verses that also worked as resume tapes but hey, we want you to drink a malt liquor, go grab a 40 ounce if you can and have a good night.
One of the best songs on the album found itself way on the 4th quarter, the almighty “Ice Cream”. When I first heard it, I loved it immediately for I used to think that addictive and repetitive piano sample was beautiful. I couldn’t figure it out and nor did most of the people who heard the song. Not only was that sample Wu-Tang’s equivalent of “Mass Appeal” but it too became the holy grail of samples, leading many into countless dead ends. 17 after its release, someone revealed the source as being a light jazz instrumental, slowed down and I discovered that what I was hearing was not a piano but an acoustic guitar. We may have hated Earl Klugh’s music but we all know someone’s parents or uncle and auntie who had one of his records.
It easily became one of The RZA’s finest moments, especially with his use of Blue Raspberry’s vocals also being chopped. For me, I also feel her vocals were one of the saddest, most sorrowful moments in the Wu-Tang’s entire discography. While the group was celebrating the wonders of women in a flavorful manner, Blue Raspberry was showing that not everything in life is whipped cream with a cherry on top or a banana split. There’s melancholy in her vocals and it was a way of saying, in some way, “things in life aren’t always what they seem or what you want them to be.”
The album formally ends with “Wu-Gambinos”, which was not only the beginning of the next phase of the Wu-Tang, but it also helped spark a wave in hip-hop where it seemed everyone wanted to validate themselves by being a gambino, everyone wanted to have two or three pseudonyms. The song also brought in Ghostface, The RZA, Method Man, and the one and only Noodles, a/k/a Masta Killa. One thing I considered while listening to this song was something Method Man said in Ol’ Dirty’s “Rawhide”. His first line was “Coming soon to a theater near you, it be the Wu”, and I was hoping that there would be a Wu-Tang Clan movie that summer, if not the end of the year. This album sounded like it could be the theme song to an incredible film, regardless if it was a concern film or them portraying themselves in gambino form. Not only that, but The RZA’s verse was arguably the best thing he had ever done, far better than what he dropped as a Gravedigga and people would instantly hope that he too would drop his own solo album soon. That would come in time.
While I feel “Wu-Gambinos” ends the album in a nice way. the actual album has one or two more songs, depending what format you purchased. I never felt “Heaven & Hell” was a good way to end an album but for many who bought the cassette, it was the conclusion to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. On top of that, Blue Raspberry’s sung “RZA and Raekwon and Ghost” came off a bit self-promotional and corny, even though what she sings is one of the best moments on the album too. If you purchased the CD, you got to hear a song that could be considered a fitting conclusion called “North Star (Jewels)”, featuring Poppa (Popa) Wu talking to the group with a bit of wisdom, to let them know about what they (and the listeners) experienced and what to prepare for in their next adventure, as well as life.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… did sell 130,000 during its first week according to Wikipedia and was eventually certified gold (500,000). While Wikipedia states Soundscan claims the album eventually sold over a million, he did not receive a platinum award for it (Method Man’s Tical did receive a platinum award from Def Jam.) Raekwon’s album holds up solidly and remains an album that every hip-hop artist would have to refer to and use an example of how to create a solid album from start to finish. It remains not only one of the best hip-hop albums of 1995, but one of the best Wu-Tang solo albums. It remains the Wu-Tang solo album that could’ve (and arguably should’ve) been Wu-Tang Clan’s second group album. Because of that, it is one of the best hip-hop albums of the entire decade. You know what hip-hop was like before Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… but you couldn’t hide from its influence after August 1, 1995.
On July 31, 1995, I started something called the Unofficial Wu-Tang Clan Mailing List, also known as the U-WU (“ooh-wu”) What I tried to do was to make it a news source when the official source was not offering it. I wanted it to be the “University of Wu”
When I started it 20 years ago, it actually didn’t have a name. Originally, I did one edition on the ImagiNation Network (INN) but that was a bit pointless since most of the people on INN were into it to chat or play card games. Thus, I wanted to form a mailing list where one was able to get Wu-Tang Clan and Wu-Tang related news. At that point, it was a day away from the release of Raekwon’s debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and while there were a number of places to find the news, there wasn’t one place where you coukd find that gathered information. I wanted the newsletter to be a mixture of The Source and Rolling Stone, but I wanted to add my nerdiness to it by offering a growing discography. I wanted to show the world that hip-hop could be in the pages of Goldmine, which I attempted to do with reviews in the early 90’s but they did not feel covering hip-hop was worthy enough. In hip-hop, there was very little attention being paid to the discography, for it was believed the music is not going to be around that long and it’s not collectible. My goal was not so much to prove them wrong, but to archive an artist’s output so that other fans could locate what they’re missing. For four years, I made an attempt to buy anything and everything that was Wu-related, at least within the U.S. By 1996/early 1997, it was becoming a rough task but I tried.
The U-WU started with nothing more than 5 members. Sending stuff via e-mail was not impossible, but a very difficult task. For a brief moment, I could only send out x-amount of e-mails before Prodigy would charge me. When they realized people actually wanted to send e-mail out of Prodigy (everything was done internally), they opened it, but you could only send something at 100 e-mail addresses at a time. At its peak, the U-WU was 5200 members strong, which meant I had to send out an e-mail for each newsletter 52 to 53 times a crack.
What I loved was hearing from younger members who said they printed my newsletters and would pass it around to friends who wanted to read not only my information, but the e-mails from other members across the U.S. and the world. It felt good to know my work was being appreciated in that way.
When the Wu-Tang came out with Wu-Tang Forever, I began to lose a bit of interest with what was going on with their music. That might be considered odd, considering Wu-Tang Forever opened the group up to an entirely new audience, those who were not there from their first album or even experienced their solo albums. Or if they did begin, they started with Ghostface Killah’s Ironman in 1996. That in itself also coincided with three albums that year that made me realize that perhaps I should expand my outlook to more than just the Wu-Tang, which I was doing. Those albums were Prince Paul’s Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), Dr. Octagon’s self-titled album (some of you also call it Dr. Octagonecologyst) and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing.) I was reading URB magazine a lot a lot more than The Source and found the music in URB to be much more to my liking. Oddly enough, most of it was what I considered more towards hip-hop, even though I did like the subgenres. In truth, like many of the other big publications I wanted to write for, I wanted to write for URB but didn’t make it in. It was my way of showing people there’s more to music than just the Wu, which in truth was my way of saying “this is what I like to listen to, check this out.”
There were two things that let me know the U-WU was a success. One was that I had received a call from Wu-Tang management, asking me to check out a new group he was working it. I don’t remember who it was but the track was something like “NY Drive-By”. I liked it and talked about it. The next week, I call up the management and they had no idea who I was or why in the hell I would call them. I was like “I was given a fax from you a week ago” and their view was more or less “we didn’t send any faxes to you.” Sure.
The other thing was when an official Wu-Tang related website used a discography from another website. a discography that was mine, right down to the descriptions I wrote for each title. They decided to give someone else credit, basically for stealing the information from me.
By 1999 or so, I had to find a way to send out e-mail in a better way so I chose to try out Yahoo, which was the hot source engine of the era. They began to have mailing lists, which was my way to transfer some of the e-mail addresses to the new database. By 2001, I had pretty much lost interest with what the Wu were doing. The last album I covered in the newsletter by IRON FLAG. By then, I had found a few communities that featured people I could gel with: Okayplayer, In/Flux//Hindsight, and Soul Strut, the latter of which came from the ashes of the Crates mailing list, which featured a number of well known DJ’s, producers, and collectors. A few of the people in each group were also from rec.music.hip-hop (RMHH) and Prodigy, whom I may have known from when chat room freestyles were a thing or when there was a group known as Lyrical Militia. In many ways, the best communities I was in was an online knitting circle where we could all talk shit.
When I ended the U-WU in 2001, it was a longtime coming. There were other websites who were doing far better graphic-wise, and it was obvious (to me at least) people wanted quality images more than text and info. I’m able to do graphics on a basic level but not what I felt some wanted/preferred. By then, having OKP, In/Flux, Hindsight, and Soul Strut felt like places I could belong in. Maybe in a small way, there’s a bit of a lone rebel mentality but I feel I did very well with the U-WU. I was able to be one of the first to bring a discography mentality into hip-hop when someone like Mercer of Sandbox Automatic was one of the few that made it worthy to others. I wanted to say “this record is worth something, and not just on the collectible side. If it’s worth something to do, archive it in a proper way.”
It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since I started it, something I really didn’t think was going to turn into anything. I can look back and remember various writers who had just started out and see where they’re at now. I look at myself and I’m still struggling, hoping to get to another next level so someone will now that my hard work is worth something. 20 years from now, I hope to be somewhere better, figuratively and literally.
There had been a small handful of hip-hop groups where they would release a solo album, perhaps maybe one or two but more times than not, the solo releases were very limited. Lucky you were to get a solo album. In 1994, the Wu-Tang Clan had changed that with the release of Method Man’s first album Tical, although you could go back four months previous and look at the first album by the Gravediggaz, 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis, featuring Prince Rakeem/The RZA/Rzarector. It was announced in the second half of 1994 that there would be three solo joints from the Wu-Tang. Three full length albums? Solo albums? IF you were a fan of the X-Clan, you would get music by Isis, Queen Mother Rage and Professor X (Brother J didn’t release anything with Dark Sun Riders until 1995). If you were a fan of Digital Underground, you would get Raw Fusion, Gold Money, and of course 2Pac within 18 months after the release of Sex Packets. 3rd Bass fans would get albums from both MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice but by that point, they did not exist as a group. However, who didn’t want more music from your favorite group when they were still around. In 1994, we would discover what was possible within hip-hop, and then we had much more.
Looking back, it didn’t seem odd that Ol’ Dirty Bastard would release a solo album, especially when the Wu-Tang Clan made it clear that everyone in the group would not only be releasing their own solo albums, but would be signed to their own solo contracts. When Kiss did it in 1978, each of their solo albums were on the label the group were on, Casablanca. When Crosby, Stills & Nash released their solo albums, each one came out on Atlantic, the label which released their group efforts (while Neil Young did become a part of the group too, he was already signed as a solo artist on Reprise). The Beatles had all released their solo work on Apple up until the end of Apple Records in 1976 (Paul McCartney ended his deal with the label he co-founded and started to release solo work for Capitol in 1975, a year before Apple closed shop). When the Wu-Tang announced solo deals, no one knew what was going to happen, there was no map for what they wanted to do. Then we heard Method Man was signed to Def Jam. Slowly but surely, we would hear that The Genius would be releasing his second solo album on Geffen while Raekwon would remain with LOUD/RCA but for ODB, he would find his way on Elektra, becoming label mates with Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and what was Leaders Of The New School. Ol’ Dirty was off to a great start.
Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was promoted first with the release of “Brooklyn Zoo” as a single, complete with The RZA’s trademark keyboards and piano samples and playing, and as it highlighted a lyric directly pulled from “Protect Ya Neck”, the song itself felt like a blast in the face. It was very much how Ol’ Dirty described himself and his music, for the song was old school, it was very dirty, and you had never quite heard anything like that because there was truly no father to that style. The song hit hard and, like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”, it was devoted to having just one verse. While some may have bought the 12″ or CD single first (featuring the great B-side “Give It To Ya Raw”), some may have heard the song first from the music video, which came with its own clean edit. The RZA was becoming a master in creating clean versions of songs, where he would either fix up the profanities by adding sound effects or having an MC drop a clean line or verse and add that in the song to replace the explicitness. For me, I still prefer the clean edit of “Brooklyn Zoo” over the dirty album version just because it’s funny and someone made an effort to be sure the song got on the radio, which it did. Ol’ Dirty became a champion of the word “nuh” and while everyone knew exactly what word he was cleaning up, it was humorous and tame yet very effective. If you wanted to react to what he was doing, he would bring it on back, and he would for the 60+ minute album.
The album didn’t begin with a song and maybe you couldn’t quite call it an interlude, for there was nothing before it. Again, no father to his style, so he decided to read a letter which actually happened to be his tribute to Blowfly. He decided to sing a ballad but instead of singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, it became “The First Time Ever You Sucked My Dick” (from Blowfly’s Zodiac Blowfly album). As he was singing, he was having a laugh at the same time and I remember listening and not being able to stop laughing.
The first full song on the album begins with a sample where Richard Pryor saying “oh, the fuck you can’t even sing. You got the sing to get some pussy”, which was a slight clue about not only the humor of the album, but the semi-disturbed mind of Russell Tyrone Jones, done for the hell of it. The song also featured another hint from Wu-Tang’s past, a lyrical reference to “Clan In Da Front”, and the song began with almost elementary piano chords. The album version seemed unfinished with just a chorus and verse, but it would take Elektra to release the song as a single before one was able to hear a second verse. That’s the version I preferred.
“Baby C’mon” almost seemed like it was nothing more than a continuation of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, a Part 2 if you will, but hearing the Wu-Tang chant a minute into the song and the cool bass sample during the second verse showed he was willing to be a party man 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Following the placement of “Brooklyn Zoo” came the very cool “Hippa To The Hippa”, which I liked due to the use of Booker T. & The MG’s “Hip-Hug-Her”. By the time Ol’ Dirty reaches the second verse and throws out jokes and insults left and right, it was obvious that this was a guy who wasn’t trying to impress a lot of people by being a Kool G. Rap or a Chuck D., he was very much like a Biz Markie or Bobby Jimmy and we were all the Critters.
I always felt that while “Brooklyn Zoo” was one of the first big highlights of the album, the album truly makes a turn for the better with song #6, “Rawhide”, partly due to Ol’ Dirty being assisted with help from Method Man offering a hint from the original Rawhide theme before Raekwon throws out a bit of freaky and fly shit, wanting to be as hot as a Ron G. tape before Meth hits hard: Comin’ soon to a theatre near you, it be the Wu
yeah, find yourself in the square and see it’s true
actual facts to snack on and chew
my positive energy sounds peace to you
a wise man killed one horse and made glue
wicked women puttin’ period blood in stew
don’t that make the stew witches brew?
I fear for the 85 that don’t got a clue
how could he know what the fuck he never knew?
God-Cypher-Divine come to show and come to prove
a mystery God, that’s the work of Yacub
The Holy Ghost got you scared to death kid, BOO!
During a time when every other rapper was dropping science in their lyrics and interviews, this came off as something serious and profound so to hear it along with Raekwon’s verse was a bit of being elevated to a higher level. It was needed at that point on the album for while Ol’ Dirty’s jokes and references was great, one also needed a bit of time to breathe and what better way than with a bit of knowledge?
The next major highlight on the album was the song to follow, which begin with kids introducing who was to come up in the song, a duet between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and The Genius, but was it a genuine duet? Not really. In truth, The RZA recorded at least two versions of the song, one that featured Ol’ Dirty solo, the other featuring just The Genius. It was decided during post-production to combine them so that it would sound like they were battling one another, so it is possible that someone else may have done a version of the song too, same lyrics and everything. If the song was written entirely by The Genius, then most likely it’s just GZA and ODB doing the song. As The RZA used to say, his style of production was the Miracble On Dirty 4-Beats so it’s possible to hear buttons being cued during certain parts of the song or voices being muted out of nowhere, so you may not hear someone finishing a word. Regardless of those technical mistakes, the humor errors gives the song and the album a unique quality, along with the blaring keyboard that sounds like a cross between a bass keyboard and a siren, if not an old Nintendo NES soundtrack. The song jumped from start to finish and just when one wanted more, it ends when it shouldn’t but it feels nice.
“Oh, cutie got it going on!”
“Don’t U Know” begins with two women talking about what they’re attracted to in men, specifically what they like about Ol’ Dirty Bastard. However, only one woman finds Ol’ Dirty appealing while her friend cannot believe what she is saying. The lady says “you don’t see what I see, B” but quickly gets a response: “I don’t see nothin’, you wearing glasses so…” and eventually it’s all about the desire they feel that happens to be very completely different from one another. Ol’ Dirty then gets into a bit of frisky flirting, telling everyone what he wants and desires before be throws out another sexy ballad. Out of nowhere, here comes Killah Priest with his own verse. It may have seemed somewhat odd at first considering Killah Priest was known as a member of Sunz Of Man at the time, who were very politically and socially so a sex rhyme may have seemed out of line for him. Yet listen to it again and the lyrics are not raw or filthy by any means, it’s along the lines of gentle puppy love, wanting Snapple and fries with her, maybe a bold drink in the evening to dance and the club to see what happens. With Killah Priest, we never know what happens because that’s not important. Later in 1995, we’d hear Killah Priest on The Genius’ album with the song “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)” along with the great Sunz of Man singles, “Soldiers Of Darkness”/”Five Arch Angels” and “No Love Without Hate”. He wasn’t about to change what he was trying to present as an artist, and he never did, at least not hear. As for Ol’ Dirty, he was on another agenda, a sexual one.
The song continues and if Ol’ Dirty made an attempt to be sensitive with his ballad, he went in for the kill and went out to bust a nut with his verse:
“I’m just sittin’, right
in my class at a quarter to 10, right?
waiting patiently for the class to begin, right?
teacher says, “open up your texts and read the first paragraph on oral sex!”
I said “Oral sex!, what kind of class is this?!”
the girl next to me said “what’s wrong with you, miss?
this is a lesson that makes you feel fine
kinda ease your nerves and relax your mind!”
I said “Don’t try to use no hypnotic spell”
she said “Be my assistant, I’d sure rather tell”
my knees buckled heart started to drop
my dick grew at a size that my nerves couldn’t stop
I tried to run, she yelled out “FREEEZE!”
pulled down my draws, dropped to her knees
ripped off my draws as if she had claws
broke the rules that defied sex laws
she responded quick, with a slick
welcoming kiss and a ice cream lick
oh, I begged, I begged
“Easy on my balls, they fragile as eggs.”
If his ode to Blowfly wasn’t overboard enough, his last verse was very much over the edge. Hilarious at the time and still is but it would be very hard to see this on any mainstream album released in 2015 without anyone protesting. At least we knew back in 1995, this was the persona of a man who was a sexual fiend, who did a bit of drink, smoked a bit of weed and whatever he felt like doing. We knew it as a persona, at least that’s what we wanted to believe, until we learned that some of his tales were true to life, or at least his life.
The song was a way to end the first half of the album and while the song ends by him saying “part two coming up… on the next hit”, there was no actual Part 2 of the song, at least on the album. “Don’t U Know Part II” ended up finding its way as a B-side to the “Rawhide” single. It is here where he talks about not enjoying using condoms because he it doesn’t allow his penis to breathe. “Going raw” may have been something he preferred but as you hear the other lyrics in the song, you can figure out why this didn’t make it onto the album. Not that talking about how his genitals are “as fragile as eggs” is something nice, but he comes off like a borderline criminal. He reaches a level of being sleazy, but then goes beyond the line of no return. Even though it came out as a B-side, perhaps it was one of those songs that should’ve remained in the vaults yet considering the music he would release after this album, I’m certain it would have leaked out anyway. It’s safe to say that “Don’t U Know” is a bit better when it ends at Part 1.
On the vinyl and cassette versions of the album, we hear “Don’t U Know” fade out but on the compact disc, it segues directly into “The Stomp” where we hear him make a slurping sound before saying “taste the shit, taste it again, like it.” Did Ol’ Dirty admit to not only enjoying analingus, but enjoying to tongue a woman’s doodoo hole with a hole that is filthy? It seems so, and it seemed if he couldn’t get anymore disgusted, he did so without hesitation. In a way, he wanted to be hip-hop’s version of Blowfly, showing himself as a comedian, a master of sex rhymes but a lover with heart and unknown finesse.
While it wasn’t used on any album version, there was actually an intro to “The Stomp” that only surfaced on the bootleg/counterfeit pressing of the instrumental version of the album, which features Rose Royce’s “I Wanna Get Next To You” from the Car Wash soundtrack before going into The Main Ingredient’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Girl Blue”. As these songs are being heard in the background, Ol’ Dirty is talking with the lady in “Don’t U Know” who loves his funky disposition and they same to be throwing words back and forth, humorous at times but it seems they get one another for the sake of love or whatever they choose to have together. Nonetheless, this seems a more appropriate segue way then “Don’t U Know (Part II)” did although due to the use of Rose Royce and The Main Ingredient, it may have either been too expensive to use the songs as they did or maybe it was unable to be cleared due to the words spoken over the songs. This passage goes for about 75 seconds before it ends, and the album version begins, where Ol’ Dirty talks about being a fanatic of butt play.
“Goin’ Down” has him going back to his childhood in two completely different ways, starting the song with a game of Punch Hall before he touches on various old school hip-hop songs, taking things to the five boroughs before the music went maintream, before “Rapper’s Delight” blew up, singling out different locations letting people know the importance of where they’re at or where they are from. Up until this point of the album, Ol’ Dirty has shown how dirty and raw he can be but at the 2:57 mark of the song, he begins to sing Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in a way that showed vulnerability and fear, as if for a few seconds, he allowed himself to escape the Wu-Tang empire, leaving the G-Building, leaving Brooklyn for a brief moment and looked into the mirror, saw Russell Tyrone Jones and was capable of singing to himself, alone, while the woman who once was all about his disposition is now arguing at him non-stop. It is then that we are allowed to hear, for a brief moment, the true man behind the insanity, perhaps one of the few times we ever got to hear that side before leaving it behind for good.
“Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie)” may be nothing more than a joke for some but regardless of his talents (or lack of it), Ol’ Dirty wanted to be sultry and smooth by singing a serious ballad while honoring the artists from the past. It would be a style of singing that Ol’ Dirty would bring back throughout his life and career. A part of me thinks had he taken that side of him seriously, he could’ve been a decent singer but he loved to hear himself moan and grunt a lot.
The album snaps back into its hardcore brutality with “Snakes”, conclusing the third phase of the album or perhaps leading the way towards the fourth and last phase of Return To The 36 Chambers. Ol’ Dirty brings in Killer Priest, The RZA, Master Killer, and Buddah Monk and in many ways, had there were more songs like this on the album, it could have easily ranked equally along Raekwon’s debut and The Genius’ Liquid Swords. Not that it didn’t, but Ol’ Dirty was not afraid to talk about his urges, libido, and having spirited times, this was his statement and he was not about to change (nor did he).
While one never heard “Don’t U Know” in its two parts on the album, this did feature Part II of “Brooklyn Zoo”, which sounds nothing like the original at first. “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” is looser and revives lines from “Damage”. What makes the song go to a nice level of greatness is Ghost Face Killer’s verse, where he proves why he is an assassination master. Right in the middle, the song becomes a highlight reel of what happened on the album so far, before the song goes into a live recording where we hear what made Ol’ Dirty a chief when he was on stage. He never held back and was often uncontrolled even when he knew how to limit himself. Then again, as you can hear, there was never any limits for the One Man Army.
As “Proteck Ya Neck II The Zoo” begins, it already feels that the album is about to reach its conclusion, for now it is a follow up to Wu-Tang Clan’s own “Protect Ya Neck” but by bringing some incredible Wu-Fam power with Brooklyn Zu, Prodigal Sunn, Killah Priest and 60 Second Assassin. At this point, the Wu-Tang Clan made everyone want to listen to them individually but it also made everyone wanted to hear anyone who was associated with anyone from the slums of Shaolin, even if it was Ol’ Dirty’s mom (who he had promised would release an album but the project was ever initiated). At this point, we got to hear what made people attracted to the Wu-Tang Clan in the first place and none of us wanted to leave this chamber. We knew we would be leaving sometime soon.
“Cuttin’ Headz” not only sounds like a variation of “Clan In Da Front”, but it is obviously an old Wu-Tang Clan when the group first started. The RZA still sounds like Prince Rakeem and could have easily been placed somewhere between “Sexcapades”, “Deadly Venoms”, and “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” but by this song being placed here, Ol’ Dirty brought it on back and went to his musical origins to let people know where he came from. It nicely ends Return To The 36 Chambers on a slightly unpredictable note but with happiness. However, as the compact disc was officially the primary format for albums, during a time when more people were able to afford the CD’s, there was two more songs to go.
“Dirty Dancin'” originally was credited as Wu-Tang Clan featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard when released on The Jerky Boys soundtrack, where he received credit for engineering and mixing the song while The RZA produced it. Method Man dropped a verse on it too but in my opinion, I always felt the song was a bit half-assed, an effort that could have been improved but wasn’t. It didn’t do anything on The Jerky Boys soundtrack nor does it do anything on the album, even if it’s filler. “Give It To Ya Raw”, the B-side to “Brooklyn Zoo”, would’ve done better here. If “Dirty Dancing” is the weakest of the bonus track, then it presents the greatness to come on the better bonus track, and what I feel should be considered the album’s official conclusion.
At the intro, we hear Buddah Monk say that we are going to take things back to Hollywood, before Ol’ Dirty Bastard sings the first verse of Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” in his own way, with his own rearranged lyrics. This then cuts into the world we have become familiar with on the album, his “terminology/psychology”, essentially the mind and mad genius of this rapper we have come to know and love. We realize we loved him from “Protect Ya Neck”, “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”, “Shame On A Nigga”, and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” and it would become clear we would love him as he was to wrap up the first verse in the song: they said “rhymin on the mic is the number one”
then a brother get the feeling that he want to play cool
you discombumberated diabolical fool
hog-flesh MC, go play in the mud
another 20th century modern day (C.H.U.D.)
Cannibal Humanoid Underground (Dweller)
C.H.U.D. broke loose from the god damn (cellar)
dope-fiend addict why you walk with
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
when the MC’s came to live out their name
most rocked rhymes that was all the (same)
when I elevated and mastered the time
you was stimulated from the high post (rhyme)
you got shot cause you knew you were rocked
With this part of the song, Ol’ Dirty refers to a line that The Genius and The RZA would bring back in “Liquid Swords” six months later. What I always loved about this lyrics is that Ol’ Dirty revived it in MTV’s special on the benefit album America Is Dying Slowly. The studio and live version also featured Killah Priest, Raekwon, The RZA, Master Killer, and Inspectah Deck, and normally the song would fade out. However, the entire Clan is in the TV studio, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard and we hear him saying “word up” a number of times beginning at the 2:40 mark and when this was broadcast, no one knew what was going to happen. At the 2:47 mark, we see him moving around in the background with glasses on, so one gets a bit suspicious. At 2:59, when the song is about to fade out, Ol’ Dirty walks up to the front and says “let’s stop this for a minute, let me get on into it“. At this point, no one in the group knew what ODB was going to do and they look completely surprised, very uncertain. He could have easily played the fool but he doesn’t. Instead, he begins to drop a verse from “Harlem World” and leads up to the “Liquid Swords” inception. For me, that became the moment when Ol’ Dirty Bastard truly became the genius.
Going back to the original “Harlem World”, Ol’ Dirty ends the song by taking it back to Brooklyn, letting people know what it means to be hip-hop and what it means to be a New Yorker, where you are supposed to honor what hip-hop is all about or else. His words are very in-your-face and it becomes less about his ego and more of what it means to be an MC:
“Repeat your rhymes all the time like a fuckin’ parrot
phony gold chains only rated two carats
you tell your friends that your home is like heaven
livin’ in the gutter sewer seven pipe eleven
you wear your socks twelve days in a row
turn them on the other side so the dirt won’t show
go to school, take a shit, don’t wipe your ass
blame it on another sucka nigga in your class… YOU WANNA BATTLE?
is it the pork on your fork or the swine on your mind
make you rap against a brother with a weak-ass rhyme
swine on your mind, pork on your fork
make you imitate a brother in the state of New York
chain on your brain that drove you insane
when you tried to claim for the talent and the fame
nothin’ to gain yet and still you came
suffer the PAIN as I demolish your name
not like Betty Crocker, baking cake in the ov-
sayin “this is dedicated to the one I love”
not a swine or dove from the heaven’s up above
When I rap, people clap so they push and they shove
When I rhyme I get loose, better than Mother Goose
Rock the mic day and night so you see I’m the juice
Like the two-six-eight, politicians demonstrate”
Despite how foolish he made himself out to be in the previous 60 minutes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard brought things down to the essence of him as Russell Tyrone Jones and to hip-hop, what it’s all about as a fan and a participant. The album went as high as #2 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart and went to #7 on the Pop albums chart. It would be nominated as Best Rap Album in 1996’s Grammy Awards but was beaten by New Jersey’s Naughty By Nature and their Poverty’s Paradise album, released a little over a month after Ol’ Dirty’s debut. Nonetheless, the music brought things back to the era when you’d go to a crusty movie theater as a kid to watch kung fu movies or head home to watch your favorite cartoons on Saturday morning. It brought listeners back to their youth while always being sure they never forget the benefits of being older and getting mature with age, even if it means to be immature once in awhile. Return To The 36 Chambers is going back to remind yourself and everyone why you love what you do, why you do what you do, and why you’re able to pass it along to the next generation so everyone can celebrate the good times, whatever it may be. In other words, this 66 minute album lets everyone know why it’s okay to grow old with grace, not be shy to get dirty once in awhile, and to do things on your own to show individuality because only you can be you. It’s okay to be a bastard, as Ol’ Dirty showed us in his lifetime. To paraphrase the opening sample on the album, Ol’ Dirty had 35, there was no 36. He died two days before his 36th birthday and thus was not able to make it to the chamber he created for himself. It would be too easy to say that perhaps it was meant to be but that’s unfair. Nonetheless, in honor of what he was not able to see, we carry on for him through the 36th chamber.