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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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Hip Hop, the New York based culture that began in the 70s, gathered steam and creative potency in the ’80s and became the dominant popular culture of the 90s, and beyond; provided economic opportunity to those with entrepreneurial spirits in its early days. It gave us Rap Music-the voice of the voiceless that infused the moribund, early 80s record business with a dose of the beauty of the streets.

On the whole, poor, working and middle class Black people along with Jews with vision, combined to create a new industry that would shape all that it touched, and resulted in playing a huge role in Barack Obama being elected to the US Presidency.

Several recent developments have given me reason to look back on where we were then, and how we’ve gotten to where we are: Jay Electronica, the lyricist to beat in the current game, has teamed up with Mobb Deep to give us the heat rock, “Call of Duty”. The intro features an excerpt from a speech by Winston Churchill that’s used to good effect, Jay shouts the recently departed Steve Jobs out and makes a plea for international unity in his guise as the “Chosen One”. This is Jay Elect’s strongest effort since his “Exhibit C” shook things up, started a bidding war and landed him on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint.

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JAY ELECTRONICA

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MOBB DEEP
Speaking of Jay-Z; he and protégée, Kanye West’s “Watch The Throne” project has had much-needed new life breathed into it by using the recently freed, T.I. on a guest collabo on their “Niggas In Paris”. Def Jam will have great fun using this one to set up the Watch The Throne Tour.

While en route to Memphis University’s Midnight Madness jump off for the 2011-2012 basketball season, Def Jam hustler Rick Ross has experienced two seizures, and been admitted to a Birmingham Alabama area hospital for the second time. Details are murky.

Jive Records was finally laid to rest by RCA; the last brand standing. Corporate maneuvering has resulted in the old home to Whodini, Blastmaster KRS-1 and Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince finally being put out to pasture along with Arista, and J Records, the two labels started by Clive Davis.

Jive’s greatest Hip Hop signing, and former RUSH Productions management client, A Tribe Called Quest were the subjects of a Sony distributed documentary that played better theaters everywhere over the summer. I served as the music supervisor on the project. The film, “Beats Rhymes And Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called” will be released on DVD on 10/18. Coincidentally, this year is the 20th anniversary of the release of, “The Low End Theory” project, the game changer that set the Native Tongue movement off for real.

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All of this Def Jam/RUSh related energy has made me look back. I met the late George Jackson, the Hollywood film producer who hailed from Harlem when I was the National Director of Promotion for Def Jam, the tiny independent that was partially based in the college dormitory room of co-founder, Rick Rubin. The other base of operations for the little label that could, was the office of RUSH, the production and management firm that Russell Simmons headed.

At that time, Jackson and his producing partner, Doug McHenry were producing,”Krush Grove” the fictionalized disaster that was loosely based on Def Jam.. We had plenty of opportunity to get to know each other. Jackson & McHenry enlisted me to convince Simmons that a then little known Blair Underwood would be ideal to play the starring role in the film. Jackson remembered that I had decent film instincts, solid music chops and mad contact when 5 years later, he was looking for a soundtrack home for another project of theirs.

This is the twentieth anniversary of the release of the film “New Jack City” the crack epic with the tight screenplay penned by the noted journalist and author, Barry Michael Cooper. Blaxploitation scion, Mario Van Peebles directed and Jackson and McHenry produced

The film made stars of Ice-T, Chris Rock and Wesley Snipes. The soundtrack made an overnight success of racially mixed new jack swingers, Color Me Badd by introducing their smash, “I Wanna Sex You Up” to a hungry film going and record buying consumer base, and Giant/Warner Brothers Records became players in the early 90s Black Music business. I had a large hand in curating the soundtrack, and you can read a more detailed account written by Tamika Anderson in the current issue of Juicy Magazine that’s on newsstands now.

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FORMER DEF JAM CEO LYOR COHEN AND CO-FOUNDERS RUSH & DJ DOUBLE R

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Last night, Rubin and Simmons held a joint lecture at the New York Public Library to publicize the release of a somewhat historically truncated coffee table book that’s been curated by the label’s former publicist, Bill Adler and it’s art department head, Cey “City” Adams. The recently released book takes a look at the first 25 years of the label in this, the 27th year of it’s existence.

Tweeting live from the event was Andre “Dr. Jeckyl” Harrell, the former head honcho of Motown founder of Uptown Records, mentor to Diddy, Mary J.Blige, Heavy D and Al B.Sure, former VP of RUSH Nd the progenitor of the world view know as Ghetto Fabulous. It was in his capacity as an executive at RUSh, that he convinced Russell Simmons to hire me as the first employee of the label that initially recorded The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J.

During Rick and Russell’s talk, Harrell began to Tweet about the late Sylvia Robinson, who along with her husband Joe, founded Hip Hop’s first dominant label, Sugar Hill Records, and how he’d inadvertently crashed his car while we were riding down the tree-lined street where the Robinson’s lived, when I pointed out the home of my former boss. Harrell was a kid from the Boogie Down and was overcome with excitement when he got his first glimpse of how much comfort a Hip Hop mogul’s money could by.

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A MORE SEASONED ANDRE HARRELL

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THE LATE SYLVIA ROBINSON & FORMER TOMMY BOY PREXY MONICA LYNCH

Sylvia and Joe’s oldest son, Joey, picked me off of one of the basketball courts in Soul City, and gave me my first shot in the record business by making me the head of college radio promotion for the label. I spoke with him on Monday, and conveyed my condolences on his mother’s passing.

Mrs. Robinson’s funeral was last Tuesday in Soul City. She was brought to the Community Baptist mega church, in my old neighborhood, by a horse-drawn carriage, reaffirming for one last time that there was truth in the title of her last hit as an artist; “It’s Good To Be The Queen”. RIP

I met Harrell in the VIP of the Roxy, the Money Making Manhattan based, roller skating disco that turned into Hip Hop central every Friday night in the mid 80s. It is the place where I first met Rick Rubin, Kurtis Blow, Rev. Run, saw Madonna perform to a track in a half empty club, and heard the Zululu overlord, Afrikaa Bambatta spin breaks, beats and classics for Hip Hop’s first crossover audience. Russell “Rush” Simmons woke Harrell from a sound sleep so that we he could be introduced.

A friend from Soul City was the son of one of the earliest Black card holders in one of the stage hand union’s for film. As a result, he was grandfathered in, and was working on Hollywood film sets in the early 80s. He’d been working on “Beat Street”, Hollywood’s earliest attempt to cash in on the Hip Hop heat that was based on the goings on at the Roxy.

My man had a lot of access, and had copped a couple of tickets to a break dancing and rapping contest that Coca Cola was sponsoring at Radio City. He came by my crib, scooped me, and we hopped on a bus and the A Train to mid-town. Inside the hall, a trio of overweight MCs called the Disco 3 won the rap contest. They would eventually rename themselves the Fat Boys, and would be positioned by Russell Simmons in conversations as the Monkees to Run/DMC, his little brother’s more serious band, who he viewed as Hip Hop’s Beatles.

The evening of the contest was a beautiful Spring New York evening. It was 1983 and the night that I met Russell Simmons, the man who along with Joey Robinson would be most responsible for my being embraced by the Hip Hop community. It is ironic that Joey’s mother, whose creative success inspired an industry was laid to rest the same week that DJ Double R and Rush were reminiscing about the label that picked up the baton that Sugar Hill passed on, and took it to a place that Jay-Z and Kanye are still running with. I love Hip Hop. This was a week that reminded me.

Shouts to Rush, Dr. Jeckyl, The Beasties, James Todd Smith, Glen E., Heidi Smith, The Ab, Tokyo Rose, Barry Weiss, Karen Durant, Chrissy Murray, Nelson George, Joey Robinson, Iris Perkins, Leslie, Sharon and Ruby, Flash, Master Gee and…The Wirk

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NILE RODGERS & MADONNA

The night that I saw Madonna perform at the Paradise Garage, was the second time I’d seen her do her thing. I’d caught her earlier that year at a three-quarters empty Roxy on 18 Street- downtown Hip Hop central in mid ’80s Manhattan, and the scene of a weekly bohemian party that Afrikka Bambata presided over. Her performance of “Like A Virgin” at the Garage didn’t quite connect with me, and at that time, it was unclear that this would be the record that would break her out of the clubs for good and turn her into a worldwide arena attraction- after all, you had to see the video to fully understand her appeal. It was also unclear at the time (to me) that the co-founder of CHIC had produced the record. She performed the song to track while wearing lingerie and writhing on a four-poster bed. The audience seemed to like it.

I heard the first CHIC single in what must have been late ’77. The smash “Dance, Dance, Dance” was wrecking havoc at every house party or jam that I attended in Soul City. Disco had a grip on the game, and I was not that into the genre. I’d been steeped in the soul, funk and jazz that had been the roots of the somewhat sanitized sound that was all the rage. Bands like Earth Wind & Fire; Kool & The Gang, War and Mandrill who’d been able to coexist peaceably on Black FM outlets along with the productions of Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff were altering their grooves to fit in. A marketplace filled with leaders was littered with the bodies of followers. Shit was corny.

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THE DEBUT

But there was some different flavor about this CHIC record. The first and most noticeable thing was the torrid bass playing of the late Bernard Edwards, and the almost militaristic approach of the female vocalists exhorting you to “Dance, Dance Dance” on the chorus. The other thing was the way the strings and horns locked up. They were bigger, and more cinematic than anything else going on at the time. It was as though you were dancing to a funky orchestra and the singers were shouting at you. At the time, I liked it but I didn’t take it very seriously I thought that it was a novelty record. Unbeknownst to me, Nile Rodgers, the guitar player and Edwards, who had written and produced the record together were at the beginning of establishing themselves as the two guys who would best define and most transcend the disco era

Eventually, Nile Rodgers and I became friends. Like me, he was a regular on the New York club scene in the ’80s and ’90s. We became friends while hanging out at the old show biz cafeteria, Nell’s around ’86 or ’87 on Manhattan’s 14th Street- it was the place to be for anyone who was anyone in music, film, fashion, sports, media or any other hustle at the time. I was an up and coming record man and he was simply the man. Because of his work with CHIC, he became responsible for the dominant sound of the New York of my youth, a white-hot town where funkiness spilled out of radios, rebellious DJs stole power from Con Ed, threw parties in any spaces they could find, and clubs and club goers held a special place in the life of “The City”.

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CHIC
His productions were numerous, and massive. His groove brought David Bowie & Diana Ross back to prominence, provided a viable launching pad for Luther Vandross, gave Sister Sledge their most memorable tracks, made Duran Duran serious and as I previously detailed, broke Madonna worldwide. Along with Edwards, he created the most valuable thing that a producer can have-a signature sound.

Combined with the imaging and fashion forward styling of the band, the music perfectly represented the inner desire of a people who had been excluded from economic equality, and began to assert their need for greater access and top shelf consumer goods. It was the sound of champagne nights, hot designer gear, entrance beyond the velvet rope, flashing lights and the promise of glamour. Listeners to CHIC records acknowledged that there was a possibility of an attainable high life.

In the late ’90s, both Diddy and Will Smith smashed using CHIC produced samples: Diddy over Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” with “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Smith over Sister Sledge’s “The Greatest Dancer” on “Get Jiggy With It” giving Nile a publishing windfall that resulted in still more lucrative years to come. I asked him if he felt any particular resentment of the Harlem born Diddy’s copping a page from his playbook with the fashion and music. He replied slyly, “Why? I got it from Cab Calloway.”

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THE BOX

In tribute to his genre bending, and era defining sound, Nile has compiled a 46 track box set that documents the output of the band and some of the key outside projects that they worked on: Nile Rodgers Presents: The CHIC Organization BoxSet Vol 1: Savoir Faire. Nile’s solo production work on Mick Jagger, Madonna, Duran Duran, Grace Jones, Gil Scott-Heron and David Bowie isn’t represented. Nor is Edwards work with the Power Station or Robert Palmer, but there are many examples of the lean muscular sound that defined the best of CHIC’S work.

CHIC stalwart, Fonzi Thornton steps out of the background, and takes a lead on the infectious remix of “I Work For A Living” from the soundtrack of the forgettable “Soup For One”. Included from the same soundtrack, are “Why” by Carly Simon, and the funky title track by the band itself. Former lead singer, Norma Jean can be heard on the rare club classic “High Society”. Three previously unreleased tracks by Johnny Mathis are here as well as “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” from Diana Ross. The anthemic “We Are Family”; “Lost In Music” and the silky smooth “Thinking Of You” by Sister Sledge can be found here too.

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All the big CHIC singles are featured including, “My Forbidden Lover”; “CHIC Cheer”; “My Feet Keep Dancing”; “Rebels Are We” and “Le Freak”. Many of the important album tracks can be heard too. My personal favorite “Open Up” from “The Real People” album isn’t included but it doesn’t detract from the project’s overall greatness. The box isn’t available domestically but can be ordered online through Amazon.com. My old friend was gracious enough to send me a copy. Through following his Facebook page, I was able to learn that through a round the clock effort, last year, he had compiled this special project for his fans. He has also completed a memoir that should be published this year.

I also learned one more thing through following his online social presence: my old friend has what he describes as “aggressive Cancer”. He uses his blog, his Twitter account and Facebook page to inform us daily of his fight for a return to optimum health. The reports inspire and give insight into the heroic character of the most important record producer to ever come from New York. I am happy to be able to listen to this collection and to remember all the nights in the VIP section. Get well soon my friend. There are more good times ahead.

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