Rufus Harley: Re-Creation of the Gods (1972)


Take a breath.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Imagine you’ve been invited to a fine dinner party, where you are expected to share your latest art project. The woman seated to your left displays her bronze abstract sculpture. The man on your right shows off his new painting, a classic oil-on-canvas of a fruit basket. And you proudly produce, to everyone’s immediate revulsion, an unfeasibly large beehive, actively teeming with thousands of buzzing, swarming bees. While you’re explaining your dangerous interest in massively oversize stinging insect colonies, the other guests slowly begin to back away from you, except for the few who bolt out the backdoor like a redneck perp on “COPS”. The host makes a mental note to erase you from her address book, her phone book and her Facebook.

This was the typical response to the revolutionary music of Philadelphia-bred Rufus Harley, the world’s first jazz bagpiper. He recorded a quartet of innovative but meagerly received albums for Atlantic Records in the mid-1960s but didn’t break out of his novelty status until 1972’s joyous Re-Creation of the Gods.

In Scotland the bagpipes are a nation treasure; its unmistakable bird-like drone can be heard during national celebrations and similar pagentry. In days of yore the Scottish army would also use bagpipes as an instrument of war, marching through the Highland mists scaring the bejeezus out of their enemy with its unearthly squawk. But its unearthly squawk called out to Harley, who put down his saxophone and began a singular obsession: fashioning jazz music for bagpipes.

A loose concept album about freedom, church, and community, Re-Creation is one swinging party album. “The Crack” greases up a hippo-sized bass fog that only the golden milky light of bagpipes could cut. His notes circle constantly like hawks in flight.

He sprinkles an old Negro spiritual with future esssence in “Nobpdy Knows the Trouble Us People Done Seen”, with a fat beat that could get Lutherans up to the dance floor. Harley makes his bapipes yodel along, like a tuned siren on a hipster ambulance blaring “MAKE ROOOOOM! NEW SOUNDS COMING THROOOOOOUGH!”

Like a long-lost Beastie Boys funkstrumental, “Gods And Goddesses” brays along like a donkey-led wagon with square wheels, happy and lopsidedly snappy. With all these songs the fun is infectious, as if Harley took all the negative, dismissive energy about his craft and turned into a tartan-clad trampoline, then jumped on it.

THE FALLOUT: Re-Creation was highly admired by the few who knew if existed, mainly other musicians.. He toured the world extensively and guested on a few left-of-center pop albums (The Roots’ Do You Want More!!!??! and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science), but only released one album after Re-Creation before his death in 2006.

Re-Creation of the Gods is available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

The saxophone was created for orchestras yet was rejected by the classical music world, only to become a foundation instrument of jazz, America’s original punk music. Harley’s devotion to the bagpipes follows a parallel path: how one person can effect the sonic recontexualization of music by sheer force of will.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: A challenge! Andre 3000 released his second solo album this year. Can you find it?

Fela and Afrika 70: Zombie (1977)


The original “F— The Police”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1977 the government of Nigeria was thick with corrupt brutish thugs, the type who denied civil rights to its populace as a matter of principle. Of the many activists who spoke out against the regime none was more popular than bandleader Fela Kuti, who released numerous top-selling albums criticizing the governments’ wide-ranging incompetence, peaking with the incendiary Zombie.

Over a twelve-minute percolation of tart guitar skanks, brisk funk beats and hard horns bleats, his band Afrika 70 tightly rages through the title track, in a sound Fela dubbed “Afrobeat”. Muscular as a bicep yet deft as a finger, the song pulses large and small, hot and cold, sometimes reducing down to a mere guitar pluck and a shaker that sounds like sizzling rice soup.

The frenetic, danceable humanity of the music sets up the dispassionate precision of Fela’s voice, coolly spitting out his opinion of the puppet-like Nigerian military:

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think

Eventually he begins barking orders like a power-drunk drill sergeant:

Quick march/Slow march/Left turn /Right turn
About turn /Double time/Sa-lute /Open your hat
Stand at ease/Fall in/Fall out/Fall down

At twelve minutes long and the entirety of Side One, ”Zombie” is a energetic full-body release of frustration, from the legs to the brain, simultaneously an exhortation and an exorcism.

THE FALLOUT: Due to its relentless negative critique of the current government, a new Fela album would usually result in a police interrogation of his crew, followed by a totally illegal beatdown. With Zombie, however, he had really pissed off the military, who somehow took offense when civilians would continually point at them in the street and shout “Zombie!” As payback for his mockery, over one thousand soldiers stormed his private compound, beat every man, woman and child they could find and burnt his house to the ground, but not before tossing Fela’s mother out the window to her death. (No, that’s not acting like a zombie at all…)

In retaliation he delivered his mother’s coffin to the main army barracks in Lagos, then wrote about the experience in the title song of his subsequent album Coffin for Head of State. Even in mourning, Fela was uncompromising about the nature of right and wrong.

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

American musicians, even with their freedom of speech under attack, have it pretty easy, “Cop Killer” got Ice-T dropped from his label, but 15 years later he’s made millions playing a cop on a television. The 15 years following Zombie found Fela surviving additional police beatings, plus a two-year jail sentence on trumped-up currency fraud charges. He consistently put his livelihood and his life on the line with each album, and Zombie was his fearless masterpiece.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Rufus Harley and his electric…bagpipes?

Shock G: Fear Of A Mixed Planet (2004)


The G stands for “green”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: On the face of it, the mere existence of a Shock G solo album sounds preposterous. He’s the face and voice of Digital Underground as well its the main songwriter, pianist, producer, illustrator and conceptualist — possibly even its personal chef and Pilates trainer — so one would assume a group created in his image would fulfill all his musical needs. Yet the hedonistic, über-player atmosphere of D.U. are a poor fit for creating songs that aren’t about macking, so seventeen years after the comical Sex Packets came the decidedly more thoughtful Fear Of A Mixed Planet.

Shock’s remade himself as a progressive environmentalist, concerned with respecting mother earth and its inhabitants, which brings a new clarity to his humor. He pokes fun at racism in the glossy, nougaty “Who’s Clean” by simply questioning the insanity of color names:

How come Black Russians ain’t black?
Black rhinos are grey.
White liquors’ clear.
Blue corn chips are brown.

Like a latter-day Aztec, Shock also gives multiple shout-outs to the sun. The sandpaper and fog beats of “Sunshine Rime” surround warm verses about “the balance of life”. “Your Sun Iza Pimp” goes a step further in homage to the Great Gaseous Player in the Sky, dropping science about photosynthesis while questioning “Who taught him how to shine that?”

Unafraid to expose his less-then-sensible sides, he affixes dirty playground rhymes to the rhythms of a computer error in “The Rime In The Mochanut”, while sweating through the embarrassment and fetal regression of a traumatically bad drug trip in the paranoid “Baby You Okay”.

The penultimate song for me is “We’re All Killaz”, where Shock free-associates with whatever enters his twisted mind. A reversed keyboard squiggle squirms through an onslaught of in-jokes, non-sequiturs and random questions, as if corkscrewing through to the cortex of his ever-questioning brain:

Astronomers discovered another galaxy the other day
and this is what they had to say
“We’re happy cause it’s only a million light years away.”
(pause) WHAT?

What indeed.

THE FALLOUT: “What?” was also the commercial response to Fear Of A Mixed Planet. Released on indie 33rd St. Records (which I believe went out of business soon after), Planet was not well marketed and subsequently flatlined. Shortly afterwards Shock G announced his complete retirement from the recording studio.

Fear Of A Mixed Planet is still available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

Melodic, holistic and iconoclastic, Fear Of A Mixed Planet is the blueprint of how to mature in hip-hop. Whether hip-hop has a place for a mature artist is anyone’s guess.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Fela releases an album so uppity that it actually results in death.