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Archive for July, 2009

In the wake of the tragic loss of Michael Jackson, the playa has spoken with many industry professionals, insiders, artists and extended family members about the sometimes confusing circumstances surrounding his death. I have also done quite a bit of reading, and while sampling the views of many authors, I had the privilege of reading a compelling Facebook note written by music marketing vet David Belgrave. As a result,  I was forced to convince him to add his wisdom to the playa’s blog, and he graciously consented. David has quarterbacked campaigns for Nas, LL Cool J, Method Man and Maxwell, and he’s not pleased with the way the media has been remembering The King.

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It feels like things have calmed down a lot in the last several days.  Just a little over a week ago, so many of us were at the height of our grief as we watched the Michael Jackson Memorial.  In the days leading up to the service nobody knew what to expect. We each had our own idea of what the service should be, who should speak, what songs should be performed… but no one was certain and the constant media speculation just made it worse.

I’m happy to say that for my circle of friends the memorial service did what all memorials should do. It comforted us and provided an outlet for our grief. In the endless media cacophony of medical experts, legal experts and “breaking news” it was at last a place & time where we could come TOGETHER and express our loss and sorrow.

I watched it with a great many of my friends as we all plugged into the CNN feed on Facebook. I found much needed comfort and emotional satisfaction both, in the words of remembrance as well as each performance. This service managed to achieve what the hundreds of hours of news coverage prior or since had failed to… to make Michael human again.

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THE KING IN PEACE

What I found disturbing was the media’s commentary & coverage of… THE MEDIA’S COMMENTARY & COVERAGE… specifically criticism the volume of coverage. Really?? That’s like dogs complaining that dogs bark too much. This is who they are and this is what they do.

“When you see 100 satellite trucks parked around it’s hard to feel reverent.”
– Marc Istook of TV Guide

Really, Marc?? Did you feel that way about the coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral? Perhaps you felt this way during the funeral coverage for Pope John Paul II?

We have all watched many global broadcasts of world events. I don’t recall ever hearing anything sounding like Mr. Istook’s observation before. What I have heard are all the networks marveling at their power to bring minute-to-minute coverage from every angle into every television or computer around the world. Watch our live coverage! Click over to our cable partner for continuing coverage! Log onto our website! Follow us on Twitter! Sign-up for our email alerts! That’s traditional media hype for sure but they haven’t been on point with this story from the start. I subscribe to TMZ, and they HAVE been scooping the media giants from the start of this MJ story.

As I type this Matt Lauer just reported the MJ investigation is turning into a homicide investigation and cited TMZ as The Today Show’s sole source. Welcome to the new media reality of the information age where traditional news institutions are rendered impotent by the power of the Internet and the empowerment of the user! Maybe they’re trying to “over-compensate” with all those big satellite trucks. Hmmmmm…

“The problem with Tuesday’s Michael Jackson memorial service as a TV show is that too often it felt like a TV show.”
-David Hinckley of NY Daily News

The arrogance displayed by Hinckley’s statement infuriates me because everything the Jackson Family did INSIDE the Staples Center felt like a moving memorial (even if you feel Usher shouldn’t have touched the casket). Everything that the media set up OUTSIDE the Staples Center… THAT felt like a circus. It was a carnival of correspondents; a parade of panelists. They must have had lions, elephants, clowns and a big-top in those satellite trucks as well. In fact, one person I spoke to who attended the service described the exterior of the Staples Center as a “surreal carnival atmosphere.” In contrast he described the mood inside the venue as solemn and respectful. Four other people who attended all agreed about the tenor of the proceedings inside the venue.

Then there’s MSNBC’s Donny Douche… pardon me, Donnie Deutsch. He said “People who are crying in the streets that don’t know him [MJ], they need to maybe get a little bit of a life.” Seriously, Donny? When Elvis died I saw thousands of people gathered outside of Graceland and along the funeral route in Memphis. All of them upset, most of them crying and some of them even dressed like Elvis… Did THEY actually know Elvis? Maybe these were all the people that Elvis bought Cadillacs for during his life (you know how he liked to bless people with Cadillacs) No? I didn’t think so either.

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FOR DONNY, DAVID AND THE REST OF ‘EM

The night John Lennon was murdered I saw thousands of mourners gathered on Central Park West outside The Dakota. They were carrying signs and holding candles as they sang “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance” through a river of tears. Did THEY know John?? Maybe these were all people who attended John & Yoko’s 1969 “bed-in” where “Give Peace A Chance” was recorded and are on the actual record! No? I didn’t think so either.

I don’t recall anybody saying that these mourners in Memphis, NYC or all over the world should get a life. It’s not just that I disagree with Mr. Deutsch, it’s that what he said doesn’t even make sense. People react to things and then show emotions accordingly. That’s how we’re built. People cried when President Obama was elected, or when the Red Sox finally won the World Series again, or when somebody on Oprah is sharing a tragic story. We don’t personally know any of these people but still we are moved. Shit, we cry at movies and those people don’t even EXIST… forget whether we know them or not. I don’t know Tony, Maria, Bernardo or Riff and they do not exist in real life but I surely shed a tear at the end of West Side Story!

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GETS ME EVERY TIME

I’ve got THE BIG IDEA for you Donny Deutsch… shut the fuck up! Who ASKED you?? (I’m sure there’s a more eloquent way to put it but that felt right!).

Now I’m not comparing the value of one life to another but let’s consider Anna Nicole Smith. Her final chapter had many of the same plot points as Michael’s… drugs, 911 calls, enablers and child custody battles. Michael may have gone from showbiz to sideshow in later years but Anna Nicole was ALWAYS a sideshow.  I didn’t hear cries over her coverage.

This is the same media that covered David & Victoria Beckham’s coming to Los Angeles for two months like it was the Apollo moon landing… in a country that doesn’t give a shit about soccer OR the Spice Girls. The same media that for at least THREE news cycles covered Obama campaign comments of “lipstick on a pig” regarding the Republican’s Pailin strategy as if we all didn’t IMMEDIATELY recognize the phrase as a commonly used expression… like sure, this black man running for President is REALLY calling this white woman a pig in the national media while still trying to court salty Hillary Clinton supporters.

Other than a sitting U.S. President, Queen Elizabeth or Osama Bin Laden I can’t think of anybody on Earth that would get more interest and coverage from suddenly dropping dead of cardiac arrest than Michael Jackson.

The media is ridiculous and has been that way for a while now. We have 24 hour news cycles for which they pick 3 hours worth of news and beat it into pulp. Then they spread that pulp all over the various shows on their channel. Larry King and Anderson Cooper cover the SAME aspects of the MJ case and their shows are back to back repeating three times a day! Anderson Cooper really should change the name of his show from “AC 360” to “MJ 24/7.”

Whoopi Goldberg says, “Michael is the gift that keeps on giving.” That doesn’t just apply to the families, the lawyers, the doctors, Sony Music and hangers-on… IT ALSO APPLIES TO THE MEDIA. They’re pimping Michael just as hard as anybody else. Despite some of media’s comments to the contrary, they KNOW what a huge story MJ’s passing is and especially under these circumstances. They know it and they want to reap the benefits of this intense interest fueled by the grief of LIFELONG fans. Then when we do watch and give them the ratings they crave, they clown us for caring so much about Michael. WTF?!?!

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ALL MICHAEL ALL THE TIME

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A VOICE OF REASON

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THE AUTHOR

In all the coverage I have watched, the collective media seems to give Michael props for only four things… being a child prodigy, giving a historic performance at Motown 25, breaking the color line at MTV and selling record numbers of Thriller. Most of Michael’s other accolades seemed to be given by the GUESTS on all these shows or people on the street being interviewed.

Some media try to camouflage their swipes of the MJ coverage as concern for the general awareness of us citizens. When Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View put her 2 cents in about the volume of MJ coverage she cited “real” news stories we might have been missing. She spoke of the US military personnel that were killed in Afghanistan the same day Michael died and listed their names. I certainly have NO issue with honoring those who have fought and died for our freedom by saying their names. However, most times when US military personnel die we just get a number, no names. The only time we usually get names of soldiers killed in action is from the local news when the fallen soldier hails from our local area. I guess Elisabeth wanted to go the extra mile on that particular day.

The fact of the matter is that the MJ coverage did not stifle my receiving other news. I heard about the soldiers killed in Afghanistan. I was up to speed on how President Obama’s trip to Russia was going.  Thnx for the concern anyway Elisabeth but unlike the mass media I can focus on more than three news stories at a time. However media, if you really are concerned with our well being and awareness I leave you with this thought:

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at YOURSELVES and make a change. HOO!

-david belgrave

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The tennis playing Williams sisters are on and trying to decide which of them will be walking away from the Wimbledon Women’s Singles Championship with the victor’s trophy; the same trophy they’ve passed between them for a decade. They’ve got the shine and the paper so, at this point, history is what it’s all about. Venus is attempting to catch the standard bearer—the great Billie Jean King—in overall grand slam singles titles, and Serena’s aim is to win for the first time in six years while exacting revenge for last year’s defeat in two sets at the hands of her older sibling. While putting this down, the playa has witnessed Serena dominate her sister and win the title in less time than it has taken to properly finish his blog.

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KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY

In the world of other defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers are on the verge of upsetting the NBA summer free agent marketplace by acquiring Ron Artest, the “True Warrior,” the nickname that he answers to during Harlem’s legendary summer tournament: the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic. The standout Queensbridge Projects product is an often troubled but gifted bare knuckles competitor who incited a riot after a Detroit Pistons fan threw beer on him. He is the best one-on-one defender in the NBA and a legit 20-point-a-night scorer; thus making him the rarest of breeds: a big time scorer who will do the dirty work at the other end of the court. His arrival in Laker land was made possible when emerging star and NBA Finals hero, Trevor Ariza’s agent miscalculated the amount of leverage their position held in their free agent negotiations with Laker GM Mitch Kupchack. It is worth noting that My Knicks drafted Ariza, traded him and passed over the hometown product, Artest, the year he came out of St. Johns. On another Laker note, my old friend Laker lead scout Rasheed Hazzard caught his first world championship ring with last month’s Laker defeat of the Orlando Magic. Get ’em Sheed! Stay focused! And congratulations to his brother and sister-in-law, Jalal and Shalott on the newest addition to the squad, Marley. Mother and child are both at home resting comfortably.

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LAKER DON MITCH KUPCHACK

If you’re not a friend on my Facebook list, you’re missing out. We just had a celebration of some of the finer moments in the history of Black Music which is currently experiencing a worldwide resurgence, courtesy of the music of The King. Steaming portions of soul, funk, jazz and hip hop were served from the insideplaya’s You Tube archives all month (you can find my FB address on my blog roll.) Jazz fusion icons Weather Report were featured, and made us recall a time when shit was just a little bit funkier. The music of the visionaries Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff was represented by posts from Archie Bell & The Drells, The O’Jays, Teddy Pendegrass and MFSB. Minneapolis hat wearing hit men, Jam and Lewis were acknowledged, as well as the late Luther Vandross. Of course, the recently departed King was remembered too.

Black Music is a river that has flowed on and on, and on through the years. You can observe it safely from the shore, or you can jump in. I’m a swimmer, and have kept up with the currents for over a generation. I was especially blessed to have been at ground zero for New York’s hip hop explosion. The New York of Grand Master Flash, the Zulu overlord/DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Fab Five Freddy, Nells, The Red Parrot, Bentley’s The Roxy, Danceteria and The Fever. Funky Town USA was deep and rich in the feeling, and the beat was strong then. You could hear the urgent sound of hip hop in the parks, on car stereos, spilling out of boom boxes, and filling the ear drums and souls of restless kids who had been battered by supply side economics. The damage that had been wrought by exclusionary practices was assuaged by the intoxicating medicine of two turntables, a mic and funky individuals with extremely mad flow. The rhythm was airborne, and in the wake of “Thriller”, it seemed that just about everyone I knew was creative in some way or another: break dancers, graffiti artists, MCs, DJs, actors, comics and entrepreneurs were all getting their grind on to the fresh sound of the come up.

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FLASH

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BAM

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FAB

At the time all this was going on, I was a radio promotion executive for hire. In what was then a tightly knit business community populated by a handful of mom & pop operators, word of my prowess traveled fast. Because I had access to airplay at then powerhouse Urban, 98.7 KISS-FM, and the pioneering Black FM Heritage outlet, WBLS I was in demand. Good friends touted my skillz to the independently distributed record label community. The late Steve Salem, third generation Black Music exec, and SRC and Loud Records mogul, Steve Rifkind, and legendary Jive creative executive turned filmmaker Ann Carli (Tokyo Rose) all helped to put the playa in the game.

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STEVE RIFKIND AN EARLY SUPPORTER

Success in music circles, and especially in New York music circles leads to increased access. Increased access leads to influence, and influence is courted and feted. As a result of this, I often found myself mixing with more established executives in the wider community. In the summer of ’86 I was invited to a party on a yacht that was thrown by the then small independent upstart Jive Records to celebrate the 3 X platinum success of their British (West Indian) Black Pop breakthrough sensation, Billy Ocean. In attendance that Friday night were some of the real and future playas in the game. Jive was then being distributed by Clive Davis’ Arista Records, so he was in the place to be. Additionally, then Arista promo don, and future Sony chair, Donny Ienner was present. A & R man Ed Eckstine was in effect. New Jack swinger Andre Harrell was on the list. My hostess Anne Carli was on board as was a young 19 year old NYU coed, Faith Newman. I should have known then that she’d make history of her own. Faith came to the party with an attorney, and we struck up a conversation that continued once we were back on shore. She was Jewish and from Philly, and was crazy about Black Music. She was current on all the latest hot twelve inches, radio cuts, mix show jams, club bangers and ballads. She was also capable of passing the acid test for flava, she could do any Black teenage dance that came out. You may scoff, but there were many a young Black adult who could not credibly do the “wop.” Faith had a lot of soul.

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FAITH AND A FRIEND

Night life was of major importance to the fledgling hip hop business because club jocks played your record first instead of waiting for it to be on the radio. It was this fact that gave the night world the edge that comes with being experimental. I had access to all of the important jocks and all of the important clubs. Faith became a club hopping buddy during that summer. She was living in a small Greenwich Village apt. and was ready to rock at a moment’s notice. As a summer of clubbing began to turn to fall, Faith needed to go back to school. She wanted to further her music business education and she was looking for an internship. I had contact at CBS Records and recommended her for an internship in the dance department. She flourished, and would eventually leave NYU early and land her first paying job in the game, a coveted A & R spot with Def Jam Recordings. Def Jam became her graduate program in hip hop. In the early ’90’s she bounced from Def Jam and took a position with it’s distributing label, and she joined the company where she first began to intern, Columbia Records, as an A & R executive. The gamble that she’d taken to leave NYU early was beginning to pay off, and would have a bigger payoff still. An artist/hustler/utility playa from her Def Jam days gave her a call about an artist that he was shopping. The hustler was MC Serch and the artist was another product of the Queensbridge housing project, the ill lyricist Nas who was then referring to himself as “Nasty” Nas.

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3RD BASEMAN AND UTILITY PLAYA SERCH

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YOUNG NASTY

A deal was struck for the young MC’s services and Faith got started making a record with the wunderkind. I had moved on to the A & R ranks myself and was busy making a bit of history with the signing of a young Virginian with a little talent of his own, and Faith and I were not in contact on a regular basis. When you become immersed in making a record, you are living, eating and breathing that project until you get that first record on the radio. Then you’re only breathing it, as you begin to fight with the rest of the departments in the company for their budgets, energy and contacts in support of your initial vision. This part of the game was made harder, as record companies at that time were primarily staffed to exploit rock and pop records. Even executives within the Black and Urban radio departments were not steeped in the vibrant street/club and business culture that was producing A & R executives like Faith Newman. But she was undaunted and proceeded to collaborate with her young charge and together they would not just make a record, they would make a hip hop classic, “Illmatic.”

Nas had appeared on the influential “Breaking Atoms” by Main Source and spit lava on a guest spot on “Live At The Barbecue.” I’d had the album, but at the time of it’s release I was immersed in compiling the soundtrack to the crack classic, “New Jack City.” The Nasty one’s debut went without notice by me. Serch and Faith had not been similarly distracted.

I first became aware that the Nas era was about to begin on an autumn night in ’93 in Brooklyn. I’d been playing basketball at the Eastern Athletic Club with the Simmons brothers, Rush and Run. The chauffeur driven black sedan that had been the vehicle for many a club runs was waiting for us after the run, and the driver Kenny Lee was accompanied by a friend, the young producer/MC/DJ/ trendsetter and Tribe frontman, Q-Tip. Our eventual destination was Cafe Tabac – the downtown model magnet of the moment.

We were listening to DJ Red Alert’s mix show on KISS-FM and the party starting “Gangasta Bitch” came on and blazed. Tip said, “I made this shit.” The radio was turned up past rattling so the bass could be felt just so. As was his habit at the time, Tip asked me, “What’s the hottest record in the street right now?” As many times as he’d asked the question, you would think that I’d be prepared to answer, but he ambushed me again. Mercifully, Red Alert came to my aid and distracted him by playing “Halftime” the debut setup jawn from Nas.

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IN THE LAB GOD’S SON & FAITH SURROUNDED BY MEMBERS OF THEIR HIT SQUAD L-R, PREMIERE LARGE PROFESSOR Q-TIP AND L.E.S.

All I can remember of my impression of that first listen was a furious lyrical intensity that seemed to reach out of the radio, grab you by the throat, and force you to listen. I remember snatches of lyrics and punch lines, “Nas why did you do it? You know you got the mad phat fluid when you rhyme” “I set it off with my own rhyme/’cause I’m ill as a convict who kills for phone time.” He was aggressive, clever and inappropriate. He was mad B.

The CD that followed several months later contained 9 more examples of excellence produced by a squad of young hit men including, Large Professor, Premiere, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and L.E.S. All through the spring and summer of ’94 “Illmatic” was top 5 in my crib. It was an essential collection of beats and rhymes that served as a window to what was going on in the streets of New York. The album has been lauded by publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Source, XXL, and others as one of—if not the best—hip hop album of all time. No true hip hop collection is complete without it. After its less than enthusiastic initial reception at retail, it eventually went platinum in 2001.

The former NYU coed left Columbia Records, and Nas struggled with an ever increasing desire for mainstream acceptance on the part of his label, and his handlers without her guidance. Despite this, he became the voice of his generation and eventually left Columbia to sign with Def Jam. It is worth noting that when MC Serch first began to shop Nas’ demo he played it for my old basketball playing buddy Russell “Rush’ Simmons who passed on the chance to sign him. Faith Newman is now married to a nice Jewish doctor, living between New York and Pittsburgh, and involved in building a publishing company. We don’t do the clubs anymore, but we’re in touch.

insideplaya

Peace to Steve Kopitko, Clive Caulder, Gail Bruszewitcz, Pete Nice, The Latin Quarter, The Underground, Kool Lady Blue and Chuck Chillout

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The BET Awards played Sunday night. They didn’t play so much as they occurred. It was a mixture of bad taste, poor production and confused purposes. What was initially intended to be their annual slickly produced presentation of the current state of affairs in the Urban Music community was disrupted by the sudden and tragic death of The King of Pop. In a fit of cultural responsibility, BET was forced to do the thing that it does least well: honor the rich, historic legacy of the Black Music experience.

To be totally fair, the timing of Michael Jackson’s demise on Thursday, not only caught the channel ill-prepared to celebrate the life of the most successful artist to ever receive exposure through its feed, but it made the larger point that the Urban Music community didn’t quite know what to make of the passing of the legend. He hadn’t exactly been revered in the later stages of his life, and it was apparent that not many of those in attendance had given much thought to his circumstances recently, and they were not quite certain why their moment to shine had to be used to honor a guy who hadn’t been hot in years. But who can blame them? The fallen superstar’s own father took advantage of a red carpet opportunity to promote the launch of a new label to be helmed by him.

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JAMIE FOXX THE HOST OF THE BET OCCURRENCE

As the host of the evening’s proceedings, Jamie Foxx was doing too much. He was there to promote his latest J Records release, provide witty master of ceremonies banter coming out of the commercials, and pay tribute to the music and persona of Michael Jackson. The poor casting choice of Foxx, and Ne-Yo singing the J5 classic “I’ll Be There” was a colossal mistake. Ne-Yo performing, “The Lady In My Life” was more than the young LA Reed protégé should have been entrusted with, and The Cash Money clique performance with Drake, its hot property of the moment, dramatically illustrated how strong production does not necessarily produce artists with the ability to deliver on stage. Perhaps it could all have been blamed on the alcohol. BTW- the performance of Hova’s new joint that proclaims the “Death Of Auto-Tune” prompted Foxx (in a post-game interview) to defend his smash “Blame It On The Alcohol” for its liberal use of the studio device made hot by the ubiquitous production style of T-Pain. T-Pain can only hope that Jay-Z’’s pronouncement falls on the apparently deaf ears of the current Urban A & R community.

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OVERDONE? FRIEND TO THE DEAF?

There were some highlights; the O’Jays, members of the 2005 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were given a “Lifetime Achievement Award”. Tevin Campbell was in fine form and looks like he may be on the comeback trail. Action adventure star, Tyrese shone brightly as a member of an O’Jays tribute group that included, Johnny Gill and Trey Songs. I wondered if Mr. Songs had ever owned or heard the group’s classic Gamble & Huff produced “Family Reunion” or the Afro-centric “Ship Ahoy”. If so, his performance didn’t suggest a familiarity with the material. I’m a little partial to the O’Jays as I’d been assigned to work with them during my days as an EMI A & R executive. My input consisted of agreeing with pretty much everything they wanted to do, and our collaboration resulted in the mid tempo, “Somebody Else Will” turning into a highly charting radio hit. It’s worth noting that lead singer Eddie Levert also lost two performing sons to untimely death, Shawn and the legendary, Gerald, two members of the excellent trio, Levert.

Overall, it appears that Black Music is, at best, in a transitional period. The sales of the Michael Jackson catalogue are reasserting the strength of the currently underserved Black Pop market; their hunger is not quite being satiated by Chris Brown and Ne-Yo. Soul-based music fans have been driven underground and are making the music of Eric Roberson, Ledisi, N’Dambi, Conya Doss, Raphael Saadiq, Jill Scott and other so called, Neo Soul artists a viable alternative to “mainstream” industry market dominance. I didn’t see any of the previously mentioned artists on the BET Awards.

The King is pulling the industry out of its doldrums in the same way he did when “Thriller” was originally released in ’82. Back then he had a little help from the late great, Luther Vandross when the same label released Luther’s second album, “Forever, For Always, For Love.” Those 8 songs really began to pave the way (economically speaking) for the strongest live attraction in the history of Black Music. Luther was a ladies’ favorite, and could pack almost any sized venue with his tributes to romance. This time, another ladies’ choice may provide some needed lift: Maxwell.

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THE LADIES CHOICES

Next tuesday, Maxwell will release his fourth full length studio recording since his 1996 debut “Urban Hang Suite” his homage to Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” “Blacksummer’snight” is the first installment of a trilogy to be released over the next two years, and is a follow up to “Now” the smash collection that provided a needed soothing source of reassurance in the wake of the September 11 disaster. Nearly eight years later, and amidst great anticipation the soul man has dropped “Pretty Wings” which to these ears sounds like the record of the year thus far. It’s the first track from the project, and it’s a gently apologetic mid-tempo tale of remorse that has become the fastest mover in the history of the Urban AC chart. The Prince influenced vocal starts with the sound of a glockenspiel/chimes in it’s intro that recalls Michael Jackson’s cover of the Stevie Wonder lullaby “With A Child’s Heart” and closes with a vamp that features a horn chart that references the Rascals’ “It’s A Beautiful Morning.” The video clip of the cut is a gorgeous slice of fantasy that intercuts a more simply styled Maxwell performing the song without the afro or braids, and singing on a simple set while three different paramours are set free through their dreams of Maxwell and begin to float upwards. Beautiful imagery.

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AFTER EIGHT YEARS…THE SILENCE ENDS ON TUESDAY

The new single “Bad Habits” is a pleasing bit of reggae funk about addictive love. But the show stopper is “Stop The World” a joyous celebration of conquest that features some prominent organ playing, crisp drumming and begging that ends all too soon.

In 2006 I spearheaded a return to the music business for the too long absent D’Angelo. In August of that year I participated in a meeting in New York with the Neo bad boy, his then label Virgin and their former Black Music chief, Jermaine Dupri. While in New York, I was staying at Eric Goode’s Maritime Hotel, and on the morning of the meeting I awoke in a hotel with no running water. August in New York is particularly unforgiving, and the prospect of a label meeting without a shower was out of the question. The hotel manager on duty was kind enough to pay for cab fare and an admission to the 10th Street Baths the legendary Turkish sweat lodge, and spa to the hip hop elite. After a steam, sauna and massage I was resting in one of the common areas in the facility and I ran into Maxwell. We’d seen each other around campus since the beginning of his career. Since I knew that he’d been recording for sometime, I asked, “How was the new record coming?”

He said, “Fine.” He was underselling.

insideplaya

1 love to Manjit, The Ep, Stuart Mattheman, Toure, David Belgrave, The Ab, Bonnie Thornton, Melissa King, Wah Wah Watson, Spy Bar, Ken Wilson RIP Frankie Crocker

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Noted jazz enthusiast, producer, DJ, re-mixer, and label executive Brian Michel Bacchus has taken time from his latest project (a tribute to Chick Corea that features The Manhattan Transfer among others) to contribute a guest shot to the insideplaya. Brian and the playa have known each other for 25 years. Somewhere along the way, he found time to discover and sign the decade’s biggest selling artist, Norah Jones.

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Often my partner in SoulFeast, Joaquin Claussell, asks me about the good ole days before protools and auto-tuning when Dolby SR was the rage and it was best to use it when you were running that 2 inch tape at 15 ips instead of 30. When I think back to those good ole days, I often think of my time at Island Records running the Antilles label. Not only was I given pretty much a blank slate to build upon, but the vibe and spirit fostered by my main man, Chris Blackwell, opened up opportunities and led to experiences that I would never get to have again.

Almost 20 years ago, my good friend Jean-Philippe Allard who was running Verve France approached me about co-producing and jointly releasing a major project that first appeared as if it were going to be recorded over three continents with the final tracking taking place in Morocco. The artist was Randy Weston, who had just released a trilogy of Portrait albums (Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston). Randy was no stranger to me and I was both a friend and a fan. The arranger for the precipitous project was to be the great Melba Liston. This was a shock to me as Melba had suffered a stroke several years back and had lost the use of the left side of her body. She hadn’t been performing, much less arranging, but you see she and Randy had a deep long musical history and he never gave up on her, and conversely she never gave up on him. She was the arranger for his first United Artist release, Little Niles named for his son Azzedine. (Azzedine, Mtume and T.S. Monk all grew up together and Azzedine was the secret behind Juicy Fruit according to both Mtume and T.S. – all great musicians that were also the sons of great jazz musicians; Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath & Thelonious Monk respectively). Randy and Melba’s collaborations both live and on record went on their entire lives. Anyone that’s heard Tanjah, Uhuru Afrika or Highlife by Randy Weston knows of the potency of their musical marriage. But this was an even more ambitious project and Melba was out of commission – or was she? Randy explained to me that Melba had been teaching herself new notation software on her Mac, with the arm and hand that she had limited movement with, and that she wanted to arrange this music. The list of people that Melba has arranged for is a who’s who of Popular Music; from Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie to Marvin Gaye, Gloria Lynne and Bob Marley, in all genres across several decades. So though difficult, Melba created magic once more and it would not be her last.

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GIFTED ARRANGER MELBA LISTON

With Randy Weston pulling for her and Melba telling us out the side of her mouth that, “It was going to get done!”, we started planning on how and where we were to record. Randy had a good relationship with Air Maroc as he had lived in Morocco for near 10 years and ran a very successful music club there. So he and I went to meet the head honcho here in NY and we were ushered in and served that strong sweet tea while Randy introduced us. I gave my spiel asking for help with the airfares for around 15 musicians and entourage, engineers, PR and a few label folks. After putting down his tea he said Air Maroc would be honored to be the carrier for this project, he would just like to have their logo on all CDs and advertising, which I agreed to right away. Just like that! I then found a 24 track remote truck in Paris for the right price with the idea that the engineer and I would drive it down through Spain and take the ferry across to Morocco. After being treated so lovely our hopes were dashed with the breakout of the first Gulf War and an initial restriction from the State Department for travel to Morocco. We then had to shift gears and re-organize for a recording in NYC!

As we had planned to use recording engineer, Jay Newland (Norah Jones, Etta James, Abbey Lincoln), who worked at the old RCA studios on 44th Street, we decided to make Studio A with it’s 40 foot ceilings home for the duration of the project. The power and history present on our first day of recording was palpable. And the camaraderie between all the musicians was infectious not just because they all had not been in the same room at once ever before, but also because sitting in the wheelchair with these amazing charts was someone they never thought they’d see in a musical situation again.

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A SIDEMAN

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THE MASTERMIND & AUTHOR

The line-up, so you’ll appreciate the vibe:Randy Weston (piano, composer), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Idris Sulieman (trumpet), Phaoroh Sanders (tenor sax, gaita), Billy Harper (tenor sax), Dewey Redman (tenor sax), Benny Powell (trombone), Talib Kibwe (flute, alto sax), Alex Blake (bass), Jamil Nasser (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums), Azzedine Weston (percussion), Big Black (percussion) and Yassir Chadley (percussion, karkaba[the precursor of castanets], vocals). And out in her wheelchair leading this historic ensemble was Melba Liston. Dizzy who was only needed for one extended song, African Sunrise, stayed for two days. Abbey Lincoln came for the whole session just to hang out with us and celebrate Melba’s return. Various other jazz luminaries stopped through that had heard Melba was back working again to pay their respects. Even Quincy Jones sent a messenger from Qwest with a note for Melba.

Dizzy played a few jokes on me that started the first day I walked into the studio when he was already there. After making introductions to everyone in the control room, as I walked by again, he yelled, “Hey Man, You got a West Indian on your back!” I turned around quick but it took a minute before I got the joke. I was wearing my Island Records/Antilles jean jacket that had Bob Marley’s image on the back! That summer I would run into Dizzy again at Northsea early in the morning when he was trying to catch a few zzzz’s in the back of his cab. I woke him up with a rap on the window and then flashed my back. We both cracked up as he headed on to the next show. I would only get to work with Dizzy one more time and that would be his last recording. That same summer I also ran into Carlos Santana three times and each time he tried to steal that jacket cause of that West Indian on my back. Once in Juan Les Pin in the South of France at the invite of Patrick Moxy who was managing Gang Starr at the time. While Premier and I were groovin’ on a Chester Thompson organ solo, Carlos moseyed backstage, saw that West Indian and proceeded to coax me into letting him try it on. Wrong! Took all night to get it back. The next time was in Aruba a month or so later and then again at the invite of Vernon Reid who was sitting in with them at the Felt Forum at the end of the summer. Each time he tried, but I was prepared. I still have that jacket, worn and tattered. That West Indian is a little worse for wear but I’m proud to wear it because it always reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie and those history making The Spirits of Our Ancestors sessions with Randy Weston, Melba Liston and my elders.

– Brian Michel Bacchus –

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