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Archive for July, 2013

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It’s been a while since we last kicked it, and I wanted to drop you a note to let you know that I’ve been thinking about you. You haven’t been away long, but there can never be a visit that can be considered to be too brief where you are.

I’ve been working on my writing, and I intend to finish a book by the beginning of next year that will detail my time spent in music, hip hop and film and the influences that impacted my tastes during my formative years. In the interest of finding a style and tone for my book, I’ve immersed myself in a summer reading binge that has led me to recent works by Toure, Eric Schmidt, Earl Monroe, Phil Jackson and the latest from Walter Mosley.

It’s been a rough summer for many of us, but I’m not complaining. I have my health and I have recently completed two projects that will be appearing later this year and next. My friend Ericka Blount Danois has written a book about Soul Train and she asked that I contribute an essay for her afterword. It’s due out this fall. My man Glen E. Friedman has compiled a new book of photographs that he has culled from his time spent capturing the early punk, hip hop, and skateboarding scenes. His book will not only feature photos from key players in those three worlds, but will have essay contributions from many of them as well. He’s also asked for an afterword, and his book will be out next year. Of course, you’ll be home by then. Is there a decent library there? Are you writing?

I get an occasional magazine or newspaper article in and I still make time for new episodes of “The Killing” on AMC and a new thing on FX called “The Bridge”. They are both procedurals with troubled, quirky and slightly promiscuous female operatives at their centers who have emotional and functional challenges in the style of Claire Danes’ character in “Homeland.” Both shows are well written and they provide a welcomed respite from the long hours of reading. Do you get to watch tv up there? Do you get to see anything other than Wendy Williams?

I’d taken a break from Facebook and I’ve been enjoying a digital detox. People who appear to be balanced in so many other ways, throw toxic, uninformed opinions around like used snotty Kleenex tissues. Outrageous views on women’s rights, gun control and the basic injustice of the judicial system were flooding my newsfeed and I had to take a break. Recently, an old friend from the club days sent an e-mail that described how friends were missing my posts on politics, culture, race, music and such. So I decided to make a brief and tenuous appearance earlier this evening. Do you get online access there?

Well I won’t keep you much longer, I just felt like I needed to let you know you were in my thoughts, and you know you have been since I first met you all those years ago at that old celebrity malt shop in Beverly Hills, Larry Parker’s. It seems like yesterday when you, Pras and Clef were opening for Latifah on her U.N.I.T.Y. tour and you were all giving the country a taste of top shelf Garden State hip hop.

I was in L.A. independently working on a project for Motown (god I miss Jheryl Busby) “Nappy Heads” was the flavor and Uptown soul singer, Crystal Johnson called me to tell me that you were the bomb and I needed to get ready for the blast. Crystal was right, but I’d peeped your talent earlier when you were doing an interview on Entertainment Tonight to support “Sister Act 2″. I’d also caught you in a hip hop musical version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” called “Club Twelve” that you did with our dear departed Heavy D. I thought you were a singer then, and I had no idea that you had mad flow too.

Time passed and an old friend became a friend of yours. He kept me abreast of your developments. I always had ideas so I tried to get you a guest collab on a Tribe joint. I even put you and Tip on the phone together, but I wasn’t successful. Remember? Do you have an iPod up there?

Then that day came that Crystal warned me about, and it happened: your crew dropped “Fugee-La” and it was on. Then you hit ‘em with that Roberta Flack joint over the Tribe loop and you were outta here. You still took my calls even while you made history. I was proud of you.

You told me that the first D’Angelo record was “boom bangin’” and that Latifah had stopped you on the highway to play it for you. I’d worked hard doing the A&R on it and when you told me it was real, I knew that I’d be ok.

Carlos Santana turned 66 yesterday and I remembered how the sound of his guitar playing filled many of my childhood New York memories. The soulful salsa rock fusion of his records made him one of the hippest artists of my youth, and then, as often happens, tastes changed and he disappeared from the radio. But not from your memory and your heart. When you went solo, you wrote a beautiful flamenco influenced soul tribute to your firstborn and featured Carlos on it. With that as a platform, he was able to record the biggest record of his career. I remember that you once told me that his “Abraxas” record was your favorite by him.

You also remembered how “boom bangin’” D’Angelo was and you cut a sweet duet with him that was all hooks and melody. You took the combination of hip-hop and soul that some of us had been experimenting with and swept the top awards at the Grammys the next year. Those were amazing times.

Well, I gotta bounce. I just wanted you to know that I still love you and just because you’ve caught a 90-day bid in the fed for tax evasion does not mean that I will judge you or stop loving you. Be careful in there and watch your back and when you get out, you’ll still be the most influential female artist of the past twenty years, and maybe when you get home India.Arie, Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Adele and the rest of those low singing bitches that you made a space for with your thing, will show you a little love and help you get back on track. If you need me, you know I’m here for you.

xo
insideplaya

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Maybe I was 11 or 12 years old. It’s hard to remember now, but Don Cornelius introduced Soul Train into the living rooms of America in an era of creative and political expansion. There was the peace movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement and the black power movement. Don changed the cultural landscape on the strength of body movement.

It was the age of John Shaft, Priest, Goldie and Foxy Brown, film characters who were armed, dangerous, colder than ice and exhibited sufficient self reliance and agency to overthrow “the man” by the end of the third act of their revenge fantasies. Their adventures were often paired with Asian martial arts films in the long ago programming staple of the independent cinema house, the double feature. By raising the financing, marketing, directing and starring in his own project, film pioneer, Melvin Van Peebles started the fire with Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Assness and flipped the movie game on its ear. In response to this new development, an industry that had previously ignored black tastes and buying power attempted to replicate his success by replicating his formula.

More “responsible” segments of the Black Community labeled these films that featured actors who shared my skin tone as negative. Historically, this strain of middle-class cultural overseer rears its head whenever some new form of valid creative expression emerges to represent the tastes of the masses in a more urgent way than was previously thought of as appropriate. These “responsible” cultural watchdogs had ideas and tastes that had been formed in a previous era and were the inheritors of a tradition maintained by those who had previously decried the legitimacy of the blues of rock and roll, and they were also the progenitors of the haters who would later show disdain for hip hop.

You would have thought they’d never listened to funky soul classics on an 8 track tape while riding in a Lincoln, a Caddy or an Elektra 225, more colloquially known as a deuce and a quarter. Or that they’d never spent a portion of Saturday afternoon at the barber shop chopping it up cross generationally while everyone discussed the latest heroic feats from their favorite athletes, the current news from Jet Magazine and repeating jokes from the previous Thursday night’s Flip Wilson show.

Isaac Hayes scored one of the more important films of this derided genre and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar on national, prime time tv that he accepted while wearing a blue tuxedo, trimmed in rabbit fur. The fur was baby blue and the bow tie matched. Judging from his fashion choice, he had obviously known the sublime pleasure of hearing his funk while cruising in a gas guzzling luxury model from Detroit.

At about the same time, across the country, on the radio, stereo FM broadcasting was supplanting the network of old AM stations that dotted the nation and formed the main network of information access for black folks, and they were also the primary source of exposure for Southern Soul singing and working class rhythm and blues. Suddenly, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, funk and Motown could be heard in stereo at any time of day for free, and the sound of a people’s joyful consciousness raising melodies and grooves were felt in crisper fidelity. Change was in the wind.

With few exceptions, the television industry was lagging and hadn’t begun to participate in this cultural explosion until one man saw an opportunity and seized it. I’m not certain that he was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirits of Van Peebles, Berry Gordy, or Stax Records’ Al Bell, but Chicago native smooth daddy, Don Cornelius had vision that was grounded in that era’s contemporary zeitgeist. As it is with most ingenious ideas his was fiendishly simple: play a few hot records, book a couple of hot acts and give some kids who danced, a sandwich for shaking their groove things to the current sounds, and pay the acts scale, in exchange for television exposure. It was a concept that was older than Alan Freed and Chubby Checker, and “America’s Oldest Living Teenager”, Dick Clark had already amassed a fortune by doing the same thing. But Cornelius would add one major innovative twist, make it black. Until then, no one had thought to feature the styles, moves and fashion of young blacks while playing the most current releases with the deepest grooves.

In my home, this brilliant concept became available around the time my mother bought our first color television. Every Saturday, funkiness for free. The combination of youth culture, contemporary soul, funk and afrocentric messaging was stronger than a Long Island Ice Tea. The animated train, puffing smoke and fueled by economic self empowerment, aspiration and creative self expression rhythmically chugging at you; the late Sid McCoy’s sonorous voice over inviting you to take, “the hippest trip in America”; the montage of that week’s guest lineup; the wide shot of the dancers putting it down and the pulsating theme music combined to create an almost Pavlovian response. Soul Train brought the elements of a strong house party into your living room every Saturday afternoon. All other activity was suspended or delayed when it was on because you knew you were about to see some shit that could not be seen anywhere else on the tv landscape. I was an early adopter.

Because of his time spent in radio, Don had loads of the only currency that’s important in entertainment circles, relationships. He knew many of the early acts and their managers, they were veterans of the standup vocal harmony tradition and some had even gotten their start in doo wop. Top tier performers frequented the show in those days too. The Curtis Mayfileds, Marvin Gayes and Stevie Wonders appeared in living color and rocked it. But the records that were chosen for the dancers to get busy with were dope, and among the most cutting edge at the time. This authentic cultural choice, seperated the show from everything else that was happening on tv then, and positivley linked it with black radio and the newer hipper FM broadcasting. Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”, Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”, the Ohio Players “Skin Tight and the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself” were but a few examples of the aural Love Peace and Soul. My record collecting was tremendously influenced by the way the show’s playlist was curated.

That was from the early days of the show’s history when it quickly changed from barely wanted syndicated stepchild to bonafide cultural phenomenon. Of course it all seems somewhat quaint and old fashioned now. In the age of Obama and in an environment of OWN, BET, Hulu, Love & Hip Hop, DVRs and On Demand, the idea of a syndicated dance show owned and operated by one black man doesn’t seem like much, but back then, Don Cornelius was the future.

When you heard TSOP-what I believed to be the definitive theme music from the several used during the show’s 35 year run- the one that Gamble & Huff produced for the show with the thumping baseline, the lush strings, the insane saxophone solo, the organ fills and the Three Degrees shouting the commanding and unifying lyrics, “people all over the world/let’s get it onnnnn…/it’s time to get down” you knew what was up. I miss those days and the hipper than hip Cornelius, he inspired a revolution.

insideplaya

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