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Archive for the ‘New York’ Category


It’s late in the evening here, and I’m up thinking. Given the fact that I am a long time nocturnal creature this is not an unusual occurrence. I picked up my unusual sleeping habits during my time as a New York club kid. As I write this, these are what would have been prime time club going hours from another era. Back in the day when New York was a seething cauldron of cutting edge street fashion, all night dancing, and young girls with long legs in short skirts, I was on the guest list of every club in town.

Some of this reminiscing has been prompted by my decision to return to the Soul City area after having been away for nearly 20 years. Soul City was the place where I was born and raised. It’s the place where Clyde Otis, the first black A&R man to work for a major record label lived and raised his children. It’s the place where “Wicked” Wilson Pickett, the great midnight shouter lived while he recorded a string of history making hits for Atlanctic Records. It’s the place where The Isley Brothers lived, and where I began my career in the music business at the legendary Sugar Hill Records.

A wise man said that it’s better to have good groove and no money than to have plenty of money and no groove. I concur. Obviously, music has played an enormous role in my life, and it has sustained me when nothing else could. The path that was paved with hits has led to a gig with Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio, and for the past year and a half, I have served as an announcer on Q-Tip’s Abstract Radio Show. On Tip’s Friday night mix show, my voice is the first one you hear. Apple is the dominant music and technology firm of the current moment, and I am honored to be a part of their team. 

Normally I introduce Q-Tip or a guest DJ with a bit of copy that I have written for the purpose of providing the drama of aural theater. Later tonight, at our usual starting time of 10:00 PM EST, I will be the in studio host for a Soul City Takeover of Abstract Radio. In a moment of sheer lunacy, Q-Tip has decided to let me both choose the music and narrate the mix. Our esteemed producer Lady Chellz, will be on the 1 and 2’s spinning Soul City classics with new music liberally sprinkled throughout. Chellz and I will endeavor to keep it funky for you for two hours, and of course, we can be heard on better devices everywhere exclusively on Beats 1. C ya on the radio.

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I got a text from a friend yesterday morning. She’s young, beautiful and talented, so young that she was really a baby when George Michael rose to prominence. She wanted me to know that she thought he was corny in a New Kids On The Block kinda way. She had no idea how hurtful she was being. When a true Soul Man dies all of us in the community feel the loss. She knows a lot about music so her opinions are usually informed, but in this case, she just hasn’t been around long enough to know that George Michael was one of the most special artists who broke through during the MTV era. Michael benefitted from the star making power of MTV and along with Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club and a few others, he became a poster boy for the music channel’s ability to make household names out of pop stars.

My friends Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson and Q-Tip all shared their condolences and shock over the superstar’s loss through social media. My old collaborators from the New Jack Swing days, Al B.Sure! and Keith Sweat paid tribute on their Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. Because you see, George Michael was a Black Thing.

I first heard George Michael’s music in 1984. Well, truthfully, I’d heard him just a bit before, but I started to pay attention in 1984 when Michael was fronting kiddie pop duo Wham. At that time, his appearance was more important than his sound, but Wham’s second album featured an anthemic slice of slick working class pop funk called “Everything She Wants”. Michael’s gruff pleading with a girlfriend who wanted more than the narrator could give had an appeal to a twenty something kid on the hustle with, two jobs, a demanding girlfriend, and an ambition to rise to the heights of the music industry. I loved that track.

Soul Music had taken a hit that year. In the spring, Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed, and I was walking around in a daze, but I kept pushing on. I was working in a small but important independent record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinyl Mania was the name of the store, and it did a brisk business in imported, independent and domestic major label dance music that was driven, mostly, by what underground overlord Larry Levan was spinning at The Garage, the Village hotspot that influenced two subsequent generations of dance club culture around the world. That was my part time job. For a day job, I worked at ASCAP identifying songs and their uses. The import 12″ single on “Everything She Wants” was a hot seller for us. On WBLS, the heritage Black FM outlet owned and controlled by the Inner City Broadcasting Group, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had a grip on progressive Black listeners, but a threat arose to his dominance as 98.7 Kiss FM began to reach out for Frankie’s younger listeners by playing early hits from the fledgling Hip Hop industry. Frankie rocked “Everything She Wants”.

Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC, and he’d let the police run amok; they’d killed an unarmed Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, and a Black grandmother named Elanor Bumpers was shotgunned to death in her own apartment. Ronald Regan was in the White House, and he oversaw sinful deregulation of the financial and banking sectors that resulted in the Savings and Loan industry being gutted, and he ignored the rising body count from AIDS until it was almost too late. Funding for programs to help the poor, the vulnerable and the victims of AIDS was slowing to a trickle that never quite made it as far down as it had been advertised to reach.

It was with all of this as a backdrop that young George Michael – a working class kid from Margaret Thatcher’s England and a proud son of disco – began his assent in the game. Yes, disco: the derivative of funk and soul that sprouted up out of New York’s Black, Latin and Gay underground and became the music of the outsider looking for a way in. This often derided music was perfect for Michael’s worldview, because he was an unabashed celebrant of Black Music and his funkiness was obscured by his looks, his glibness and a uniquely potent gift for pop song craft.

While Michael was experiencing the peak of his success he was never fully appreciated. Much like the early Beatles – Wham/Michael was dismissed as a disposable pop group for young girls, but “Everything She Wants” sent a signal to the R&B and Black Pop markets that this kid was coming to get his and that he would be disruptive while doing it. Later, when his song writing became more introspective, he ran afoul of corporate politics, and he rebelled against the big money string pullers who would have had him release the same formulaic ditties that made him a phenomenon. Michael was thought to be too pretty and too slick with his writing to be taken seriously and his deep connection to the Black Music tradition was overlooked.

Before the tabloid headlines, the police entrapment, the forced outing, the near death accidents and trials with addiction, George Michael suffered the burden of the beautiful when he split with Andrew Ridgeley, his Wham bandmate, and embarked on an historic run as a solo artist with the release of the title track from “Faith” a rockabilly workout that smashed around the globe. If you only saw the video or didn’t get the album you may have missed “Monkey” or “Hard Day” the two funk joints on the album, or the subtle and soulful begging on “Father Figure”.

But I was in the Black Music business that George Michael was a factor in, and I witnessed this: Grandmaster Flash destroying a dance floor at the original location for The China Club – when it was a hangout for the best session players in The City – by cutting up the bass line from “Freedom 90” back and forth. Regional representatives from two major labels (one of whom had gotten Madonna’s “Material Girl” added to rotation) arguing with the PD from Kiss FM on the merits of adding Jam and Lewis’ remix of Michael’s “Monkey” to the station’s playlist, and the PD ignoring their objections to put the fifth or sixth single from “Faith” on the Urban powerhouse’s airwaves. The dance floor of The Garage packed and getting busy to Wham’s “Everything She Wants”. Stevie Wonder crooning a duet with Michael from the stage of the “World Famous” Apollo Theater. George Michael performing all covers including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” backed by The Sounds of Blackness at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, George Michael with the Patrice Rushen loops, the Gap Band interpolations, the James Brown samples, the Aretha Franklin duet, the Mary J. Bilge duet, the Stevie Wonder covers and big churchy choruses that screamed freedom out of radios and televisions was a Black Thing. The older he got the blacker he sounded. He became an avatar for Gay Pride and a vessel for those who remembered when Soul Music was a means for protest. He used the fashion business to promote his sound by casting Christy Turlington, Eva Herzigova, Tatijana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Beverly Peele, and Hip Hop’s favorite dinner date, Naomi Campbell in his videos. He shone a bright light on the AIDS crisis and gave away tons of money to charitable causes. He kept it funky while doing it all and reminded us to listen without prejudice. I loved his music. I do not think that his dying exactly ten years to the day that we lost James Brown was coincidental. He’s probably somewhere trying to show James how to rock one of those slick Italian suits that he used to wear. He made a mighty contribution to this thing of ours. For this I am grateful.

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The Ab is the abbreviated name of The Abstract Poetic, another fly pseudonym for the player more widely known as Q-Tip, the leader of A Tribe Called Quest. We work together on Apple Music’s Beats 1. He spins and I announce. We’ve got chemistry that we’ve developed over a period of nearly thirty year’s time. 
He called yesterday. Hearing from him is not the most unusual occurrence in and of itself, but he’s been busy lately – mad busy. Monday he and his fellow band mates shot a video, Wednesday night they had a listening party in Queens, and yesterday he was rehearsing for an appearance in support of Dave Chapelle’s first shot at hosting Saturday Night Live. The SNL gig jumps off tonight.

While he was on the phone, he had to pick up another call from Jonah Hill, and he’d already heard from Bradley Cooper. Rick Rubin texted his congratulations. Nas checked in, Alicia Keys and L Boogie checked in. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Rev. Run of Run/DMC checked in. All of this uptick in activity and interaction with these film, comedy, soul and Hip Hop headliners has been prompted by yesterday’s release of the sixth and last album from A Tribe Called Quest “We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,” the band’s first record in nearly twenty years. And the first one since the heartbreaking and sudden death of Tribe cofounder Phife Dawg, from complications due to Diabetes last spring.

“We Got it from Here… ” is on fire, and showing early signs of penetrating the public’s consciousness by receiving commercial acceptance in a way that is rare for records in these times. In an earlier era, you could easily track the success of a new release through radio air play and retail sales. Now, the online radio community, Soundcloud, You Tube, streaming, unauthorized downloading, file sharing and the rest have diminished the ability of record companies to quantify the success of their product. Even so, early indicators are that the record is already top ten in sales in eighteen countries (without the availability of a physical CD), and may possibly enter next week’s pop chart at number one. Epic Records chieftain and Black Pop overlord, L.A. Reid has got a left field smash with significant cultural importance on his hands.

The current political climate has upended the American status quo in a shockingly definitive fashion by unearthing an ugly underbelly of hatred that had been previously held in check. In an effort to reclaim economic and political power, working class whites and a large portion of voting Latinos elected an immature and bigoted political novice to the Oval Office. Blacks, Latinos with sounder political views, Muslims, women who want to maintain the right to choose, gays and people in need of affordable health care all feel less secure than we did at the beginning of the week. In uncertain times the need for solid, dependable ideas, concepts and institutions increases. A Tribe Called Quest is one of those durable brands that we can count on in times of distress to soothe our souls with the healing power of Black Love.

Yesterday at an impromptu retail pop-up promotion in New York’s Chinatown, a line of eager Tribe fans, that went totally around the block in both directions, and met itself at the beginning, began to form six hours before the doors opened. While attending the event, Tip encountered a young woman who was despondent about America’s recent choice for president. She confessed that she’d been considering suicide because of our national folly until she heard “We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” and now she has the hope to go on.

The young fan is not the only one who has been feeling a little down lately. The record has been giving me life too. It’s dope, game changing and badly needed.  I’ve been hearing bits and pieces of WGIFHTY4YS in various stages of completion for nearly a year. The intensity of the production and performances far outshines anything else in the marketplace right now – Tribe is playing chess while the rest of these kids are playing marbles.

When I visited Tip in September at his home in Soul City, he played a relatively complete version of the project for me over the course of three nights. The majority of the record was recorded in the Ab Lab in the basement of his crib. Based on that first night’s playback, I was so overwhelmed by what I heard that I had to excuse myself and go to sleep. I didn’t have the required stamina to hear that level of sophistication and fury. Subsequent listens inspired tears.

Sonically this record is somewhat undefinable but it is rooted more in a slick Pop/Funk thing that can only be described as the Q-Tip sound. He’s been digging in the crates where the rarest of grooves can be found, but has incorporated. a good deal of live playing that fits his overall concept well. With this record, Q-Tip, the master conceptualist, DJ and MC has stepped forward to the elite ranks of record producers working in music today.

They’re all on it. All the Tribesman; Tip, Busta Rhymes, Jarobi, Consequence, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Phife. A few friends helped out too; Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Talib Kweli, Marsha Ambrosious, Jack White, Elton John and a new voice on the record’s tribute to better living through chemistry “Melatonin,” Abby Smith. The group addresses hot topics in the intellectually conscious, insightful, humorous and funky way that has made the band one of Hip Hop’s best of all time. Tip, Jarobi and Phife set the pace from track one on “Space Program,” a demand for the listener to wake up to the pervasiveness of the affects of wealth inequality among other things. Other standout tracks include ; “Whateva Will Be,” a proud display of human and lyrical identity; “Dis Generation,” a tight freestyle with pop potential; “Lost Somebody,” the tribute to a fallen comrade and the b-boy workouts; “Möbius” and “The Donald,” a couple of joints where Consequence, Busta, Phife and Tip rock steady.

It’s been a long journey from the beginning for Tribe. It’s been a path laden with success, disappointment, defeat, death, healing and triumph. A lot of life was lived in the eighteen years that passed in between now and their most recent record. We are reminded that creating great art requires sacrifice and pain. Without it there will be no joy. This record sounds like all of that took place and got poured into its creation. Those eighteen years were time well spent because this is the best Tribe record ever. Get one right away. You can thank me later.

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Last Saturday night, I was sitting in Philly’s 30th Street Station waiting on a connection. It was a slow evening and the old cavernous railway hub was sparsely filled. I’d missed my scheduled train because it hadn’t been announced. Apparently, the departure of New Jersey Transit commuter lines are occasionally overlooked by the station attendants and only frequent users of those lines have solved the mystery of scheduled departures.

I was on the phone discussing a few creative ideas with The Ab. We hung up and then I saw her. She sat down on the bench in the row in front of me. Her back was to me, but her profile was evident while her head was slightly bowed as she read. White hair, two braids, glasses, simple – bohemian. My heart sped up a bit because I didn’t believe it was her. But it was; like me, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Patti Smith was quietly waiting for a connection too.

I walked over and asked politely, “Excuse me, are you Miss Smith?”

She said in that unmistakeable raspy voice, “I am.”

I replied, “I’m Gary Harris, I worked in many record companies, and I grew up in the hip hop business.”

Her first records came out while I was in high school. I was too busy keeping up with Earth Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to pay much attention. Later, in Boston, when I involved myself in the little 10 watt college radio station that would change the course of my life forever, Ray Fallon, a classmate with cutting edge rock tastes, kept our little funk, jazz and soul station honest by being the primary programming ear for our morning rock show. As a result, I gained exposure to the first recordings of The B-52s, The Police and early stuff from Patti. I still didn’t pay much attention to her music because an androgynous upstart named Prince was the dominant new voice that captured my attention.

Later still, I became immersed in the ’80s world of Downtown New York, the bohemian paradise below 14th Street in Manhattan, that was populated by artists, designers, dancers, fashionistas, musicians, hustlers, socialites and rule breakers of every type. An experimental scene knitted together by punk, alternative and hip hop cultures, and where clubs had names like Danceteria, Area, The Roxy, The World and Save The Robots. It was an era when Madonna, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Grandmaster Flash and others made their bones. Due to the ghettoization of the disciplines of all of these artists, we were all forced to hang out in the same spots, and somehow or another, we were all considered punk to a greater or lesser extent. Patti Smith was our predecessor and an architect of the aesthetic that shaped that world. At the time, I was a little busy promoting underground hip hop acts to mainstream radio to have paid much attention to her records.

But I read. Some say a lot, I’d say not enough. There’s never enough time to get it all in, but I make an effort to search out new and interesting authors. A few years back, Patti’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely written memoir “Just Kids” came into my life, and for a little while it lit up my world. Her descriptions of her relationships with controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, playwright Sam Shepard and the music, art, theater, poetry and photography that formed them are beautiful.

We talked briefly, but covered a wide range of topics. I asked where she was coming from. “South Jersey,” she said.

“Do you still have family there?”

“Yes.”

I told her that I’d loved how in her book she’d detailed growing up in stifling working class conditions, and that, “I loved the way you described how listening to early rock & roll gave you creative and emotional freedom,” I said, “I’m from Jersey too. The town where The Isley Brothers and Wilson Pickett lived.”

She asked, “Did Jimi Hendrix used to play with The Isley Brothers?”, and continued, “Johnny Mathis played my high school prom and in a smaller ballroom off to the side, The Isley Brothers were playing. They had this great looking guitarist who was doing splits while he performed and I remembered that they were all laughing at him. Later when I saw him (Hendrix) perform, I wondered if that was the same guy.”

I asked incredulously, “Johnny Mathis played your high school prom? Wow. That must have been some high school.”

“It was a sponsored event,” she said.

“Obviously,” I replied. And then I continued, “Yes Jimi played with them, and in fact, he lived with them when they were all still with their mom in a house right across the street from my junior high school.” I told Patti, “I loved how you referenced (John) Coltrane in your book. He recorded A Love Supreme in the area where I grew up. The engineer who recorded the record (Rudy Van Gelder) still lived there when he died recently.”

“I can’t believe I’m running into you at the train station in Philly,” I said.

“We’re both in our hood,” and she went on, “When I first moved to New York, I walked along 57th Street…”

“When you worked at the book store?”, I interrupted.

“…no, before I worked at the book store. And I stopped at a church… I don’t remember the name of the church…”

“And that was when you ran into the elderly couple who looked at you and your friend and said to one another, “Look at those two. They seem so interesting, you think they might be artists?” And you overheard the reply, “Nah, I don’t think so, they’re just kids”.

Patti Smith is a national treasure. She came up as a muse and poet who was convinced by others to record and perform. Reading her memoir was a deeply moving experience unlike few I’ve gotten from a book. I’ve already read it twice, and along with her newest “M Train” I intend to read it again.

Meeting her felt like speaking with an older relative with highly evolved mystic gifts. Her demeanor was quiet and powerful.

I mentioned that I’d seen her documentary on PBS and she shared that it was a labor of love that took a decade to complete. Shot while she was based in Detroit, it covered a period of semiretirement when she grieved over the loss of her husband and brother, while she raised her kids.

We talked about many other things, but when I began to relate the experience to a friend, I became overwhelmed with emotion and began to cry. The force is very strong with that one. I’m happy that we both made our connection.

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For Michael Stipe, Annabella Sciorra, Julie Panabianco, The Ab, Hilly Kristel (R.I.P.) and Ray Fallon

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I am proud to announce that I have been officially tapped by Apple Music to join Q-Tip’s Abstract Radio Show as an announcer, contributor and friend with the task. The Abstract Radio Show can be heard every Friday night on Beats 1 Radio at 10:00 PM Eastern. As some of you may know, before I began a long and rich career in the record business, I had a brief stint in both commercial and college radio. Having grown up listening to New York Top 40 outlets, WABC and WNBC; soul music AM powerhouse, Super 1600 WWRL, progressive jazz station, WRVR and of course, the “Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker on the pioneering, black FM, WBLS, I have been deeply influenced by the radio listening experience – in many ways, radio formed me. And so, after an absence of 34 years, I am making a return to announcing via the newest and most cutting edge radio endeavor of the moment. Available exclusively through the Apple ecosystem of devices; iPads, iPhones, iMacs and MacBooks, Beats 1 Radio can be heard in 101 countries. I will be joining an on air/online lineup that includes; Jaden Smith, Sir Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Disclosure, Run The Jewels, Ebro Darden, Drake, St. Vincent, The Fat Jew and Dr. Dre. You will be able to hear my imaging/production drops beginning next Friday, and my live announcing thereafter. I hope you will join us. Mad shouts to Ian C Rogers, Glen Ellis, Dominique Cierra Maldonado and Q-Tip, The Abstract Poetic.

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Nina Simone was way ahead of her time. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the new Netflix documentary – that went up on the site this weekend – clearly depicts this fact. Oscar nominated, Liz Garbus and producer/music industry vet, Jayson Jackson have come up with a tale of art, power, pain, and sacrifice that has lit up the independent film festival circuit and is a must see.

Simone was a bi-polar, bi-sexual, genre defying artist/activist, whose career arc began as a child prodigy in the Black church. While growing up in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, Jim Crow was master of all he purveyed. But in spite of this, Nina’s obvious talent attracted the attention of white patronage and tutelage. Eventually, aspirations were stoked within the young artist’s soul for a career in classical music. The dream of glory on the stages of the great European concerts halls, playing the compositions of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms was dashed, when racist thinking prevented her acceptance into a prestigious Philadelphia based music school.

Young Nina found hope and opportunity nonetheless, and began to pursue a career as an Atlantic City nightclub singer. Notoriety that she received from this period led to a recording contract and the release of her smash rendition of Gershwin’s standard “I Loves You Porgy” and a stunning debut at the Newport Jazz Festival. What then appeared to be a promising career as a jazz influenced standards singer was redirected by the bombing death of four little girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church, the assassination of Mississippi activist, Medgar Evers and Nina’s eventual participation in a civil rights movement in full swing.

With all of her standing in the international creative community, she chose to fight for the rights of her people. Nina’s commitment to change, to justice and to better may have caused her to lose millions. The radicalized Simone performed for marchers on the eve of the Selma protests, hung out with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes and became the next door neighbor of Malcolm X. Simone’s defiant expression of Afrocentric creativity not only planted seeds for the eventual emergence of hip hop, but found supporters and followers in a nascent feminist movement that has flowered into a serious presidential candidacy for Hillary Clinton.

Last February, when John Legend received his Best Original Song Oscar for “Glory,” his collaboration with Common, from the soundtrack of “Selma,” he both quoted and thanked Nina Simone when he said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” Through his music and his work with the Black Lives Matter Movement, Legend has proven to be a creative and political son of Nina Simone’s that she might have been proud of. Along with Talib Kweli, J. Cole, Jigga and Q-Tip, Legend has risked commercial acceptance by raising his voice for justice.

The recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Charleston remind us that the struggle that Simone was engaged in is not over, and that lessons from the past must inform our fight for a better present and a more hopeful tomorrow. Revolutionary activist, Angela Davis has contributed liner notes to a forthcoming compilation album, “Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone” that has been inspired by the film, and that will feature five new vocal performances from Ms. Lauryn Hill. Davis wrote this of Simone, “I first heard Nina Simone’s music as a high school student in the late 1950’s in New York. Although her name did not yet by itself evoke black freedom, as when she later sang “All I want is equality/ For my sister, my brother, and me,” I do not think that I was alone in feeling that something in her phenomenal voice beckoned us toward the battle to come. It was from Nina Simone that we learned, for example, how not to interpret the tactical importance of nonviolence as mitigation of our collective anger against racism. Thus “Mississippi Goddamn” became as important an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement as “We Shall Overcome.”

On this last weekend of Black Music Month, and while we fight to reform an unjust system that must be reminded that Black Lives Matter, it might be instructive to watch “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and remember how much further we must travel before we overcome and how hard Nina Simone fought to get us here.

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