Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow (2002)


Fire at will.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Ever had really awesome French toast? Crunchy yet supple slabs of thick golden brown with steam rising between its buttery layers? So yummy you even bragged to your friends about your unexpected good fortune? French toast is so simple to make yet difficult to make great.

Bay Area natives Blackalicious are the musical equivalent of great French toast. After turning heads in 2000 with their independently released Nia they vaulted to a major label for their next album, the tasty Blazing Arrow.

Filled to the brim with hard hipster soul, producer Chief Xcel tastefully laced the tracks with the shocking sounds of real instruments. Emcee Gift of Gab’s flow is thick like maple syrup yet speedy like a NASCAR driver, easily twice as fast as the usual rapper with four times the internal rhymes.

He bobs and weaves like a sub-atomic helicopter in “Paragraph President” and rides the waves of the lazy seafaring “Blazing Arrow”. Consistently focused on spirituality and community he gets all Armageddoned-out on the mock-classical “Sky is Falling” and promotes the power of positive thinking in the soothing, organ-sprinkled “Green Light: Now Begin” (Hell of intelligent diligent heaven-sent benevolent relevant medicine/Poetry pedestrian peddelin’ mad adrenaline to lyrical gentlemen).

Blackalicious also share quality time with ghostly remains of Gil-Scott Heron in the luminous “First in Flight”, and rock with some of Jurassic 5 over the beef-jerky dry piano of “4000 Miles” as well as the “I can’t believe he rapped the periodic table of elements” stunt rap of “Chemical Calisthenics”:

C-A-O-H-2 wine water solution of calcium hydroxide
Slobbin it, C-A-O lime will make bleach powder
Galvanic metal beats stomp out louder
Dried ice, C-0 squared refrigerant
N-O-2 makes you laugh, it’s laughing gas used by the dentists
I nearly added acid glue, I’m like oil of a toil, the king of chemicals
And the G heat gas waved all your mats
Chemical change, ice point, melt all your raps
Atomic weight, hold shocks, when you call
Refillable gas keep going way beyond
Biotch I’m only ill with buzzin, feel the ambiance
A diabetic process outta calm your ass
After I warm your ass, I’ll give sodium, silicate N-O-2-S-1-O-3, a water glass
Borax flexure full of brimstone sulfur
Boraxic acid, hip-hop preserver
C-O-2 could never put away the fire
Style aroma is scientific; the lyrical fuse would be connected
To teach you chemical calisthenics

Kids, don’t try this rap without adult supervision. You could hurt yourself. Ever had a tongue cramp? Ouch.

THE FALLOUT: With a fistful of glowing reviews but a handful of sales, Blazing Arrow also suffered from the shuttering of its record label, a move which also doomed Common’s Electric Circus. Four years later Blackalicious released their follow-up The Craft. And once again, on an independent label. And so it goes.

Blazing Arrow is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Tasty and comforting, Blazing Arrow makes for essential nourishment.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: In honor of Cinco De Mayo, listen to an unsung Latino departure album from Los Lobos.

Bobby McFerrin: Circlesongs (1997)


Say what?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: A “number one” record must feel like the first delirious puff off a crack pipe cause nearly every musician who’s tasted it fiends for another hit, turning an endless number of dignity-lowering tricks that result in an ever-thinning body of quality work.

But once in a while a number one artist uses their new powers to assert their integrity, like reclaiming their birthname (John Cougar Mellencamp), refusing to prance around in music videos (Pearl Jam), or making increasingly challenging music. After scoring big in 1988 with the pop anthem “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, Bobby McFerrin majorly shifted gears and began to conduct orchestras. Yes, with a baton and everything.

Freed from having to produce a hit record his albums became increasing experimental, reaching a watershed with the release of 1997’s miraculous Circlesongs. You know when vocalists sing little nonsense words before or after the real lyrics, sometimes scatting or repeating the ends of words along with the beat? McFerrin concocted an entire album around this concept. He used twelve vocalists but not a single real word is ever uttered.

Each song is structured around single cyclical riff while other voices improvise on top of it. Through this simple recipe he rolls out endless melodic variations and fascinating textures. Breaths become percussion, high voices dive and soar like seagulls. Deep monk-like drones share space with showtune chirps and African chants. Sometimes one syllable is passed back and forth like a hacky-sack then devolves into a gentle choral gibberish. All the rhythms are clean and precise which magnify the joyful and oddball tonal smears that bounce off each other.

It’s a celebration of community, of spiritual awakening, and it’s a lot of fun.

THE FALLOUT: The album and resulting tour was well received by the tiny few who knew the album was even released. Honestly, did you know this album existed?

Circlesongs is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Radical as a tandem unicycle and way easier to ride, Circlesongs gives hope that major labels can embrace Black departure albums, just as long as they come from someone uncommonly famous. Well, it’s a start.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Blackalicious fires a warning shot.

Derrick May: Innovator (1998)


There’s Something About Detroit.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Detroit native Bob Seger once commented that early in his career he’d play to a packed stadium in his hometown, then drive to New York where he could only command a tiny audience in a funky dive. To be famous at home but invisible elsewhere is also the curse of Derrick May, one of the co-inventors of techno music. His groundbreaking singles have been collected into his only full-length album, 1998’s Innovator.

What is it about Detroit that inspires such extremism in its musical acts? From wild funk (Parliament-Funkadelic) to aggressive punk (Iggy Pop), from sleaze rock (Ted Nugent) to ill hip-hop (Eminem), the Detroit music scene seems to have a lock on the brilliant and bizarre. Into a city haunted by the ghosts of the modern automobile industry came DJ and musician Derrick May who created soundscapes that fused ambience with hard beats; instrumentals designed for dance floor spiritual awakenings.

Under the name Rhythim is Rhythim he released the influential 12” “Nude Photo”. Its murky shifting pulses burrow through the beat like a tapeworm, devouring and expelling all melodies in its wake. His big international break came with the romantically dark “Strings of Life”, which quickly became the template for this new musical genre, the “Johnny B. Goode” of techno. It’s the sound of isolation, of cold steel, of urban excitement, of rain bouncing off the roof of a bus shelter.

May’s tracks like create tension by ignoring all rules of dance music accept one: keep the beat slamming. “Kaotic Harmony” spreads out like a jazz song, with robotic variations on a theme. “Drama” aims for your solar plexus, blanketing you in an avalanche of molten pinpricks.

If the urban dance clubs of the world was a unified tribe, this was their music.

THE FALLOUT: Congratulations! You’re a Black person who makes music that’s not considered “Black”! Even though you’ve helped create a new internationally successful genre of music, the music industry at large doesn’t know how to promote you!

To be fair, the faceless nature of DJing has been a deterrent to major success in many areas but the fact remains that techno in America has one face and it’s Moby’s. It also didn’t help Derrick May that his last recordings were released over a decade ago, and most of his output is out of print. He still DJs around the globe and is given much respect by the club world but like his idols Kraftwerk, his lack of product has clouded any rightful ascendance to a musical throne.

Innovator is available at Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

I feel like Derrick May gave his soul to techno and all he got was a lousy T-shirt. Techno has the patina of “Goofy Caucasians on Ecstasy”, which inevitably diminishes and dismisses his accomplishments, blurring them into the passage of memory.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Voices without words.

Seu Jorge: Cru (2005)


Baby, he likes it raw.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2004 Brazilian singer and guitarist Seu Jorge enigmatically appeared in the movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, softly strumming Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs. This unexpected profile boost raised expectations for his second studio album, the sparse and haunting Cru.

Cru means “raw” in Portuguese, and Jorge created an album of raw emotions and stark ornamentation. Centered around sharp acoustic strums, samba beats and his oaken voice Cru creates a stunning force through willful under-production.

Bem Querer (My Dear) is a sunny swim in a pool of liquid guitar, while the romantic Una Mujer floats upon a bed of near inaudible beats and electronica. Tive Razão {TV Reloaded} (Voltair Mix) mixes wordless breaths and church organ, sounding like a man pleading for his soul at a funeral march.

Lyrically Jorge is concerned with the urban extremism of Brazilian culture. He shakes a jungle-like fist in the anti-fake boob rant Mania de Peitão (Large Chested Mania), and he reps his childhood home from the musical-filled slums with Eu Sou Favela (I Am Favela).

Cru was a well-respected hit in Brazil…

THE FALLOUT: …but America slept on it, as it does with all non-English language albums. Unless it’s reggaeton. Cru got some critical love but seems destined to remain a cult favorite.

Cru is available worldwide from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Growling and coiled like a panther, Cru commands by charm and grace.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The godfather of techno is a brother. Check the hidden genius of Derrick May.