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.

Kenna: New Sacred Cow (2003)


Eighties. We’re living in the eighties.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 Limp Bizkit mastermind Fred Durst stopped making crap music just long enough to sign singer-songwriter Kenna to his label. The Ethiopian-born Virginia transplant then handcrafted his fizzy and fun debut album New Sacred Cow.

A red neon homage to new wave music it uniquely incorporates the soaring and slightly British vocals, big melodies and plastic squiggly tones of 80s modern rock while injecting a hip-hop flavor into the concrete-tough rhythm tracks. Imagine Duran Duran and Depeche Mode produced by Dr. Dre and you’re in the ballpark.

Kenna layers his lilting, desperate voice over the songs like a warm headscarf, giving you a deep immersion into his laments. His beautiful phrasing neatly knits the dirty bouncing regret of “Freetime”. The electro-gospel “Vexed And Glorious” features a syncopated busy signal anchored by a rippling snare and zooms like a quick drive away from the club.

The danceable joyfulness of his music is tempered by its extreme introspection. He’s concerned with losing his independence (“Siren”), his happiness (“I’m Gone”) and perhaps his sanity (“New Sacred Cow”). Even when he accepts love he nervously questions it in the manic depressive “Love/Hate Sensation”:

Give me a ride on a zephyr
And rocket away from here
Give me all your affection
And teach me how to feel

I got a love hate sensation
Coursing through my veins
I got a love hate sensation
Driving me insane

This is also an eerily accurate prediction of how his album would get to the public.

THE FALLOUT: A single was released in 2001 but his label refused to release the album, citing their inability to market a black new wave musician. After two years in limbo New Sacred Cow was finally issued on a different label, but positive press and a high-profile tour did not result in significant sales or a mark change in the original marketing conundrum.

Kenna’s promotional dilemma did inspire an interesting chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Not that marketing him would be easy, but as he didn’t appear in his first two music videos, and as the only picture of him in his own CD booklet is a one inch tall, black and white portrait of him hiding his face, it seems that someone has a problem with the race issue.

New Sacred Cow is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

New Sacred Cow is a refreshing sponge of synth-pop styles and self-examination, sunny and seductive, and singularly sensational. And kinda silly.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Seu Jorge swims out into open water.

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.

Common: Electric Circus (2002)


One day it’ll all make sense.

Purchase this album: Amazon

In 2000 Chicago-based conscious rapper Common released his third album, the instant classic Like Water For Chocolate. His first Top Twenty and first gold record, Chocolate’s lyrical depth and tight songs catapulted his ascendance into hip-hop’s big leagues. But his next album was in a league of its own, the retro-rockin’ Electric Circus.

Utilizing musicians and singers from rock, rap and R&B, he filled the album with gurgling organs, backwards noises and distorted guitar solos, the cumulative effect akin to hearing a rap album from 1967.

Adding to the surprises Common doesn’t even show up until the second song. The Zap Mama singers help tilt the carnival feel of “Ferris Wheel” into an ad hoc intro theme, then Common drops the boom-bap in “Soul Power” over a gumbo of spooky voices and violins.

Lyrically he chooses to be more impressionistic than specific, which suits the creepy French spy chase of “New Wave” and the psychedelic gospel of “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”:

Mercury and retrograde,
I’m trying to get niggas in the ghetto paid
While they watch pornos and Escalades,
away from floats and the dope in sex parades
Somebody screamin in my mind, I’m tryin to find if it’s me
Or voices on the master, they design to be free
Same revolt, can’t be found on TV, or radio, its livin in me
Hey lady, that smoke is bothering me
If I put it in your eye, ashes you would cry
All this rap talk is blowing my high
I just came to chill and build with my guy
I try to walk but I stumble off the humble path
This story of a pimp stick that became a staff
You got it, you gotta know where to aim the Mag
Art and opinions are made to clash

When he does focus his thoughts he brings forth the meditative and liquid “Between Me, You & Liberation”. A nearly spoken word poem on death and release, it floats in a midnight pool of jazzy drums and squirmy tones.

Common updates ragtime in “I Am Music” fusing fantastic bleary horns with UFO landing sounds. He also remakes rock’n’roll in the Hendrix homage “Jimi Was A Rock Star” an eight-minute exorcism of piledriving drums and head-bashing fret shredding.

With the right amount of record-label promotion, precisely setting and resetting expectations, this was the album to make his career.

THE FALLOUT: Three weeks after Electric Circus’ release, Common’s record label dissolved. Without adequate promotion it never gained a footing into other music circles, which left it squarely in the hip-hop camp. Journalists and fans dismissed it as un-listenable trash and publicly blamed his then-girlfriend, Erykah Badu, as the catalyst for his hideous transformation. His next album, Be, was a return to acceptance and sales, and free of all Circus’ progressiveness.

Electric Circus is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

See you next year.

NEXT YEAR: More albums, more obscurities, more cultures, and more uppityness.

Yeah, I know “uppityness” isn’t a word, but you know what I mean.

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.

Chocolate Genius: Godmusic (2001)


Alter-ego tripping.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: All over the world, for as long as human have performed, masks have been used to shelter identities while speaking truths, no matter how base those truths may be. New York musician Marc Anthony Thompson released two pop-soul albums under his own name in the 1980s but unleashed his sacred and profane persona Chocolate Genius in the late ‘90s. Witty and urbane, naïve and spastic his second album Godmusic demands your respect without requiring your approval.

His burnished, hushed baritone draws you in like a confessional then traps you there like a fly in a web, each song slowly progressing as if gravity is its enemy. On first listen the tunes seem ordinary, familiar, but each playback reveals additional layers.

The hymnlike moods are caressed into creation, from the mournful barbershop quartet of “Infidel Blues” or the ambient piano accents of the womb-like “Love”:

Love, love, love/ Poets talk
Love, love, love/ They don’t know
Love, love, love/ Stupid motherfuckers

Lyrically searching for happiness in a bleak world, he evokes a new dawn rising in the shimmering “Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)” and literally creates God music with the ringing and squealing “To Serve You”.

“Planet Rock” is not a cover of the Afrika Bambaataa classic but a wheezy and cheesy eulogy to a lost friend, its synthetic candy-ass tones as cheap as the drugs she took:

I know a girl from planet rock
who swears that she can stop?
I heard her scream without a sound
burn her father’s house to the ground
I told myself I wouldn’t waste a song
Because she’s gone.

This may the only album I’ve heard that tries to be as wry as possible.

THE FALLOUT: Unclassifiable, unexplainable and essentially unsellable, Godmusic attracted a fistful of great reviews and a thimbleful of sales. In a typical story for this site, Chocolate Genius recorded his next album for another label.

Godmusic is out of print but used copies can be found at Amazon, and you can hear tracks right here:

Starting with out-of-sync warbling and ending with a nod to Truman Capote, Godmusic is refreshingly intelligent, humorous and oddball.

NEXT WEEK: Stevie Wonder scores a little plant documentary and, oh it backfires.

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.

Konono N°1: Congotronics (2005)


It took a nation of Belgians to hold them back.

Purchase his album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Bazombo trance music is a fiercely polyrhythmic style indigenous to the area between Congo and Angola, and is usually played on likembes (the thumb piano) and hand drums. But years of Belgian colonization had pushed many natives into the urban cities, where it was hard to hear the music over the noise of modern culture.

In 1980 likembe master Mawangu Mingiedi fought fire with fire and founded Konono N°1, the first bazombo group with electrified amplification. And they didn’t just run down to Guitar Center and buy some gear. They plugged their likembes into massive handmade speakers built with magnets scrounged from Belgian car radios. They carved working microphones out of wood and attached them to oversized megaphones, also left by the Belgians. They made percussion out of pots, pans and brake drums. All these inventions created crazy distortions in the sound, which gave the group a uniquely brutal and industrial flavor.

Flurries of watery fuzzy metal tones crash into martial drums topped with shrill whistles and call-and-response chants. Imagine campfire songs performed by an extremely angry marching band on amphetamines. It’s that primal and earthy, yet it’s not always clear which earth.

Intense and unique Konono N°1 went virtually unrecorded until Congotronics. Although twenty-four years had passed, not one item of their instruments or sound system had changed. That’s the equivalent of Grandmaster Flash sticking with the same turntables for his entire career. Talk about “keeping it real”.

THE FALLOUT: An unexpected critical success is starting to become a commercial success as well, and Konono N°1 is touring Europe and USA this year.

Congotronics is available from Amazon. For all you Public Enemy and Kraftwerk fans, here is the organic equivalent.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Basehead belches up a tipsy classic.