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.

The Veldt: Afrodisiac (1994)


Led Zeppelin in reverse.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: The English music sub-genre “shoegazer pop” never took off large in America. Its layers of watery, echoey guitars nearly smothered most vocalists’ delivery and we here just couldn’t hang with that, man. But the Chapel Hill, N.C. natives The Veldt evolved this sound with the addition of hip-hop beats, resulting in their major-label debut, 1994’s breathtaking Afrodisiac.

Heavy blankets of oceanic guitars still ring through cuts like “Soul in a Jar” and “It’s Over” but the drums are surprisingly groovy and propulsive. Lead singer Daniel Chavis’ tenor cuts through the brittle fog like a mountain climber, his introspection soulfully directs the hard-driving bell tones of “You Take the World”.

“Until You’re Forever” dreamily glides like metallic butter melting over a very large piece of toast, rooted by unfeasibly funky, cannon-like drums, The sculptural feedback of “Heather” carves space with its leonine roar, and the band almost flirts with new jack swing in the shiny’n’ fuzzy “Wanna Be Where You Are”.


THE FALLOUT: “Black guys with guitars who aren’t bluesmen” were a difficult issue for their label, and in spite of positive reviews Afrodisiac never caught a wave of acceptance. Their next album was released independently, and after its followup The Veldt packed it in.

Afrodisiac is out of print worldwide but you can pick up used copies from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

If you stood on the planet equidistant from the musical centers of New York and London then lunged into the Atlantic Ocean, that feeling would be the sound of this album. Unique, unmatched and overlooked, Afrodisiac is still waiting to catch a wave.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The octagonal doctor is in.

Spacek: Vintage Hi-Tech (2003)


Shake your funky exoskeleton.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 the London-based electronica group Spacek released their first album of restrained and futurist R&B called Curvatia. Championed by a small but feverish lot they returned in 2003 with an even more subtle and skeletal recording, the click’n’blissed Vintage Hi-Tech.

Ever see shapes in the clouds and wonder how long before the wind dismantles them? That’s the fragile sound of Spacek. Using clicks for snares and clacks for kick drums, Spacek’s production technique is to record as few instruments as possible while using almost no sounds that one would associate with music.

Hums from escalators, taps from a cell phone, the modern sounds of a highly wired urban society invade the tones, much as a wooden flute reinterpreted the sounds of a singing bird way back in the day of the hunter-gatherers.

Offsetting this foundation of quiet inorganicness is the burgundy smooth voice of leader Steve Spacek. Barely singing above the volume of a golf commentator, his delicate soul crooning is the anchor that gives the songs their barest wisp of shape.

The tunes don’t ebb and flow as much as they fade in and out. The syncopated swing beats of “Motion Control” bob and weave like a street baller, with barely audible woodpecker percussion. It’s clinical and sexy, like a forensics lab with a singles bar.

“Time” flows smoothly like the weightless movement of a glass elevator, every floor revealing new gorgeous vocal layers and funky deep ends. On the jagged side, “Amazing” sounds like monkeys firing zap guns during a tango in a Chinatown dry goods shop.

The shuffling “Light Up My Life” orbits around mirrored sound puddles of electric piano. Bass shows its face now and again like a hot air balloon that occasionally hits the ground, bouncing off doo-wop vocals and synthetic chicken clucks.

Over an accompaniment of toy piano and thump, “123 Magic” distills the childhood glow of awareness into a wafer-thin mint of perception:

I’m gonna disappear
right before your eyes
Then I’m gonna reappear
make you feel surprised
123 I’m gone
you know I won’t be long
Gone to another place
spend a little time in space
All in a zone
you wanna come with me
I can take you there
you can fake it there
I’ll find ways for you
Cause I can see right through

A song about being barely there, performed as if it was barely there. Clever.

THE FALLOUT: Turns out the sales were barely there as well. Vintage Hi-Tech was well-received in dance circles but pretty much ignored everywhere else. They have yet to record a follow-up, but Steve Spacek released a solo album in 2005.

Vintage Hi-Tech is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Romantic dance tunes for pumping out of your hovercraft, Vintage Hi-Tech gently dropkicks soul music into the next century.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Muddy Waters’ sells out to the young’uns.

Stevie Wonder: Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979)


Twenty-five years later and his career still hasn’t bounced back.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: It’s 1979 and my mom is amped. We’ve just come home from the record store where we picked up Stevie Wonder’s first album in three years! Mom had practically worn the grooves off his last album, the double-length Songs in the Key of Life, and this one is a double record too! It’s gonna be great!

Then Mom puts the needle on the first song. She planned to sing along with Stevie but she is freaking out over the numerous instrumentals (starting with the synthetically orchestral “Earth’s Creation”) and songs in foreign languages (Japanese in the kids-and-koto-led “Ai No, Sono”, and Bambara in the savannah rhythms of “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye”). She wanted to get down with some high-energy funk but instead she’s hearing mid-tempo ballads (the gorgeous “Black Orchid”) and slow hymns (like the funereal organs of “Ecclesiastes”).

Mom screws up her face at the record player as if it had defecated on the carpet. She furiously examines the record sleeve for some explanation of this madness, as if some random backup singer’s name would somehow justify this thing she had just purchased, at double record price no less.

“It’s a soundtrack to a plant documentary”, she snarls, as if that clarifies everything. “Why? Why would he do this?” Meaning, why would he do this to us, all the Black people who have supported him throughout his entire career, why would he blindside us with an un-funky, un-political, un-lyrical and un-cheap score to an un-movie?

The simple answer is, because the filmmakers asked him and he said “yes.” The real answer is devastatingly more complex.

America grew up with Stevie Wonder. We listened to him sing his little heart out as a young boy on Motown. We watched him take control of his career and turn synthesizers into seductive funk instruments. We heard him mature into the one of the best living songwriters, somehow selling millions of records and having dozens of hit songs while maintaining complete respect from other artists, musicians and critics.

But after a seventeen-year career of doing the same sort of music over and over, an original score offered him a chance to expand his talents into a completely new realm of composition. Based on the book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, the documentary The Secret Life of Plants posits the thought that plants can actually feel emotions and are more sentient than anyone had ever considered. At a time in history where no one thought that a blind Black man had any more to offer the world than basket-making, I see how Stevie might have jumped at this opportunity.

Alas, the modes and tones that make up a great score are usually not the ones that make up a toe-tapping pop album. There are some classic Wonder moments on the album, namely the live band throwdown of “A Seed’s A Star” and the liquid vocoder disco of “Race Babbling”, but it’s mainly a collection of intriguing and expansive background music.

Had it been promoted as the score it truly was, the stage would have been set for a proper audience response. But it was set up as the next release from the man whose last three albums won Album of the Year Grammys, back-to-back-to-back, and the world expected something…, well at least something with a lot more words in it.

THE FALLOUT: Dead on arrival. The critical and commercial backlash was so intense I bet he wished he was deaf too. The up-with-romance single “Send One Your Love” was a minor hit but that was it. Even the film got caught in the horror, barely screening at all, ever.

Motown begged him to record a back-to-basics album lickety-split and he returned the next year with the successful Hotter Than July. The reggae of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” probably saved his career, and yet, it killed his artistry. From 1980 on, Stevie Wonder released far fewer albums and all but gave up taking musical chances. The last twenty-five years of Stevie Wonder has been an abrupt shift from new sounds and naked expressiveness into flabby, overwrought sugar treats, and it all ended with this album.

Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is available at Amazon and you can listen to some tracks below:

Expensive and unique, progressive and forgotten, Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants deserves a rebirth. I mean really, it’s WAY better than In Square Circle, and some of you actually bought that one. Ah well.

NEXT WEEK: Los Angeles has a Problem with Negroes.

Neneh Cherry: Man (1996)


As in “Man, what ever happened to her?”

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Neneh Cherry’s unification of hip-hop and energetic pop music made her an international superstar with the release of 1991’s Raw Like Sushi, but her toned-down followup, 1993’s Homebrew, was an artistic advance yet a commercial retreat. And if you’re American, that was probably the last time you heard from her.

The rest of the world, however, was privileged to receive Man in 1996, a honey-coated slab of soulful electronica. Co-written and produced by her husband Cameron McVey, it sparkles with intellect and sensuality while decimating you with hard beats and grunge guitar.

The buttery smooth strings of “Woman” move like honey just before it drips out of the container, full of sweetness and anticipation, while Cherry reaffirms her mission statement:

You gotta be fortunate
You gotta be lucky now
I was just sitting here
Thinking good and bad
But I’m the kinda woman
That was built to last
They tried erasing me
But they couldn’t wipe out my past

“Hornbeam” sizzles with confidence, sailing in a sea of wordless cooing and strangled electronics, filled with the joy of pure sensual emotion, building and building, like a cocoon before it bursts.

Man does contain a massive international hit single in the Youssou N’Dour duet “7 Seconds”, its steely cool impassiveness starkly contrasts against the warmth of their voices.

Cherry shows off the swagger in her step in the trip-rock of “Kootchi”: a laundry list of the mundane things she likes about her lover:

I love the way you walk,
I love the way you talk
With your mouthful
The way you park on the sidewalk
The way you are in the car
I’ll make you love the way I behave
On my bad days

Belting this while a meteor shower of distortion rains over a military backbeat, her ability to sound demanding and vulnerable simultaneously is uncanny. Her vocal command travels down to the quiet alien calm of” Carry Me” and up to the bouncy sandpapery beat of “Together Now”. All the makings of hit record in America.

THE FALLOUT: Alas, her American record company was going through a “restructuring” in 1996 and declined to release Man, ever. It was a minor hit in the rest of the world, lovingly out of step with current music trends. Outside of guesting on other artists’ singles, Neneh Cherry has yet to record a follow-up album in the nine years since its release.

Man is available at Amazon and you can also listen to tracks here:

A rare humanistic electronica album, Man is worthy of seeking out, even if you live in the USA.

NEXT WEEK: Chocolate Genius turns to God, kinda.

Divine Styler: Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (1992)


Are you ready for the love of Allah, ambience and acid?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: What was Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate smoking in 1992? Ice started singing with the hardcore punkish Body Count, Everlast turned into the Irish Cypress Hill with House of Pain, and Divine Styler fell into the abyss with the scary-ass freakshow of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light.

Ever hear a song and think “This is just wrong. Songs aren’t supposed to go like that. Is something in my ear?” This is a whole album of those songs, each one more disturbing and psychically damaged than the last one.

Dropping the strict hip-hop of his previous album, 1989’s Word Power, Spiral delves into psychedelic speed metal, trip-hop, Elizabethan acoustic fingerpicking and jam-band blues rock while unveiling fiendishly intricate rhymes about his Muslim faith and psychedelic drugs. What he doesn’t do exactly is rap, although every other method of vocalizing is present and accounted for.

In “Am I An Epigram for Life” he asks himself muffled metaphysical questions while swirling down the drain of keyboard bloops. The bloops return in “Touch” where he whispers his beat poetry up against a melting CasioTone preset beat, which then decays into a funk march.

It’s unsettling to listen to “Love, Lies and Lifetime Cries” as it consists mostly of him pleading “They won’t let me in!” while he frantically knocks on a closed door. I wouldn’t open it either; he doesn’t sound like someone I’d want to let in the house. But his paranoid ranting over sickly oozing keyboards is highly intriguing.

“Grey Matter” was the radio single, as if wooden flute techno jazz was going to get him spot on “Yo! MTV Raps”. His eloquence is outstanding as it is avant-garde, as he goes way out onto the microledge with “Heaven Don’t Want Me And Hell’s Afraid I’ll Take Over. He pontificates, seduces and conjoles you with his oratory skills, one step from outright screaming. He saves that for “Mystic Sheep Drink Electric Tea” a buzzy slab of industrial grindcore.

Divine Styler kicks it super-old school, kinda, with the drums-and-space of “Euphoric Rangers” then stays in outer space with “Aura” where he raps over the sounds of a malfunctioning alien probe ship.

THE FALLOUT: Divine Styler impressively wrote, produced, arranged and played most of the instruments on Spiral, but his fearlessness caught hip-hop heads completely off-guard and it bombed. Divine Styler lost his production deal, his record label and eventually his freedom (if not also his tether to the material world).

Spiral is out of print but might be available from Amazon. You can also listen to tracks below:

Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light is unabashedly psychotic but worth the effort of a complete listen.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: What ever happened to Neneh Cherry?

Little Axe: The Wolf That House Built (1994)


The first ambient dub blues album. Sorry, Moby.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Little Axe is the nom de plume of guitarist Skip McDonald (which itself is the nom de plume of…OK I’m digressing.) He’s most famous for being the in the Sugarhill Records house band (remember “Rappers’ Delight”?), the group which eventually mutated into the sample-happy urban rockers Tackhead.

But McDonald was a bluesman at heart and in 1994 he refocused his talents to bring Delta blues into the next century with the exceptional The Wolf That House Built. Working with his Tackhead partners, McDonald wraps his taut guitar around canyon- deep bass lines, East Indian tabla drumming and atmospheric splashes of electronica to create tunes that transcend culture and time period.

The Wolf of the title refers to the classic blues man Howlin’ Wolf, who’s sampled vocals take the lead of the modern hobo song “Ride On”. Greasy and gritty, it mimics the traveling gait of a subway train strutting through the town.

The chain gang voices of “Never Turn Back” add a primordial sadness to the tabla dervish, its percussiveness chips into the song like tiny icicles. You can almost see the animals conjured from the opium smoke.

The music’s refusal to specify its genre is it’s greatest conceit. “Wake The Town” might be a traditional Pakistani wailing song until it takes a detour into Jamaican dub. Both “Out In The Rain And Cold” and “The Time Has Come” laces its American blues idioms with video game percussion; the sort of music one would hear from the bar band in a futuristic anime.

With all the heavy tech used on this album the real surprise here is the sunny “Another Sinful Day”. Consisting of just voice and jangly guitars it summons up the simple joy of making music around the campfire, which is about as rootsy as blues can get.

THE FALLOUT: Rootsy of not, Wolf flopped upon release and Little Axe found himself a new label. Five years later Moby used the same combination of transplanted blues vocals and electronics on his album Play, which became a multi-million-selling international hit album. Ah, timing is everything.

Wolf is way out of print but you can score a copy at Amazon, and you can hear tracks below:

The Wolf That House Built is a sterling example of world music done right, and its inventive exuberance is timeless.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Divine Styler loses his mind and records it for our enjoyment.

A. R. Kane: 69 (1988)


The underground ’90s sound, one decade early.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1987 the London duo of Alex Ayuli and Rudi Tambala were in a quandary. Under the name A. R. Kane they’d released an EP called Lolita, which garnered some critical praise. But they also were part of a collaboration called M/A/R/R/S which released the international dance hit “Pump Up The Volume”, although their handiwork was invisible to the buying public. Nevertheless they returned in 1988 with their watershed dream pop album 69.

Drenched in caverns of echoes, 69 eerily predicts trip-hop and ambient dub music, years before those phrases were ever conjured. It’s a wet sounding album, an empty ghost ship washed up on the beach, its crew long since gone completely mad.

“Crazy Blue” actually starts with incoherent babbling, as heavily echoed guitars clang like incoming tankers fighting for pier space. The moaning vocals remain in the background, hiding behind each other in the tonal fog.

The melancholy dance continues with “Suicide Kiss”. Its dub-like bass pulsates as if it’s drilling toward the earth’s core. Guitars sizzle like sparks off a welding torch.

The aptly named “Dizzy” is a tune straight out of the asylum. Its creepy cello adds a disturbing formality to the din of screaming background vocals. You can feel the too bright hospital lights and hear the cries of people who obviously made their instruments out of bedpans and restraints.

“Spermwhale Trip Over” sounds like surf rock created by a band who’d never seen the ocean. The moist undulating waves of droning feedback nearly submerge the lysergically-enhanced lyrics:

here in my LSdream
things are always what they seem
here in my LSdream, in my LSdreaming

and all the shifting shapes
all changing to grapes
never making mistakes
in my LSdream

In “The Sun Falls into The Sea” A. R. Kane reduces their attack to hundreds of tiny ringing bells while voices hauntingly glide and wail, free from the shackles of rhythm.

THE FALLOUT: Influential as was on the underground dance scene, 69 was not a hit record. A. R. Kane released several more gems before calling it quits in 1994.

69 is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here. Dream pop shoegazes on.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Q-Tip records a masterpiece and his label locks it in a vault. Hear tracks from Kamaal the Abstract.

Herbie Hancock: Sextant (1973)


Jazz can swing, and sing and sting, but what happens when jazz goes ping?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: By 1973 keyboardist Herbie Hancock had recorded ten albums with Miles Davis, including the historic free-jazz sessions of Bitches Brew. That recording must have of woken up his inner freak-child because his own music started to steadily mutate away from traditional song structures toward dense aural sculptures, light on hooks but ultra-heavy on grooves and atmosphere. Hancock’s future of the funk also used a literal ton of bleeding-edge synthesizers, mostly tweaked to produce unearthly bleeps, blops and, er, pings.

After recording three albums of challenging and poorly selling releases for Warner Brothers, Hancock and his band Mwandishi moved to Columbia Records and unleashed Sextant, a fresh blend of African polyrhythms, melodic brass and layer after layer of tripped-out keyboard sounds.

“Rain Dance” begins with, well, imagine the sound of water slowly drip, drip, dripping onto the metal floor of an empty submarine. This submarine then suddenly drops 20,000 leagues beneath the sea of shrieking horn stabs, switches on the acoustic bass propulsion jets and cruises through the waters of electronic jellyfish and percussive sea critters.

The journey continues on land with “Hidden Shadows”, an arid trek through a rocky terrain populated with dive-bombing synthetic mosquitoes and bubbling percussion volcanoes that erupt drum geysers without warning. The rhythm section gallops quickly as if they are being chased by unknown assailants. Keyboard smears and horn solos hang in the air like angry buzzards circling its prey.

“Hornets” takes you deep inside the rainforest of wild, untamed instrumentation. It’s a twenty minute battle for jungle supremacy as every musician fights for control of the song, trying to ride the humid wave of its primacy while avoiding being sucked into the undertow. The horns and drums maintain a valiant catfight but Hancock’s wall of synths eventually outflanks all comers with a continual venom of exotic textures, both oppressive and effervescent.

Nowadays we’d call this music electronica or ambient, but in 1973 it was called “an unlistenable mound of dung that’s best ignored”.

THE FALLOUT: Sextant didn’t sell and the resulting tour was not well attended so Mwandishi called it day. Hancock focused his next musical project on merging jazz with funk, which was a novel idea in 1974. That album, Headhunters, became the largest selling jazz album of all-time. How’s that for a career rebound?

Sextant is currently in print from Sony and available from your better CD retailers, like this one. It’s the perfect headphone music for that odd trip to the aquarium. You can also listen to tracks here:

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: In the streak-free world of major label hip-hop, New Kingdom brings beats to the grime.