05/30/18 Tracks

Pat Van Dyke drops warm jazz vibes with new LP, Hello, Summer

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Drummer/composer/producer Pat Van Dyke drops his single “Lotus,” the first from the upcoming album entitled Hello, Summer—a funky, upbeat, and cheerful jazz record that hits the spot for heavy summer rotation.

Written, performed, and produced entirely by PVD, “Lotus” features soloists Zac Colwell (tenor saxophone) and Jesse Fischer (Fender Rhodes) over the foundation laid by Pat’s guitar, keys, bass, and percussion work. The veteran K-Def mastered the record.  

“Lotus” hits digital and streaming platforms this Friday, June 1, and the album kicks off the summer season with a Jun 22 release on vinyl and digital (Cotter Records / Stereo Vision Recordings). 

Pre-order the “clear pool blue” vinyl via Fat Beats here.

05/16/18 Articles

Pianist Ahmad Jamal charted a new popularity for jazz

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In 1958, a small, dignified, Pittsburgh-born pianist, composer, and bandleader named Ahmad Jamal recorded a show tune entitled “Poinciana” at a hip, Black-owned venue called the Pershing Lounge in Chicago’s South Side. His elegant, Errol Garner–style pianisms, buoyed by drummer Vernel Fournier’s second-line syncopations and the rich, rock-steady bass lines of ex–Benny Goodman sideman Israel Crosby, transformed that song into something rare for the jazz world—a hit record. With the release of “Poinciana” as a single, and on the million-selling LP, Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not for Me, Jamal emerged as major force in jazz, or as he prefers to call it, “American classical music,” and has been so for five decades.

Jamal is a true scientist of sound: his use of space and dynamics, along with his tight, intricate arrangements, were a big influence on generations of pianists from Ramsey Lewis to Jacky Terrasson. In his autobiography, Miles Davis declared that Jamal “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”1 Davis was so enamored by Jamal’s conceptions that he recorded various compositions from the pianist’s repertoire, including “A Gal in Calico” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Davis and arranger Gil Evans even transcribed Jamal’s “New Rhumba,” a track from his 1955 LP Chamber Music of the New Jazz, note for note on their big band album, Miles Ahead. 

Born on July 2, 1930, Jamal started playing piano at the age of three. He was heavily schooled in the European and American classics, and was working professionally at the age of fourteen when the jazz piano giant Art Tatum declared him “a coming great.”2 He left home with bandleader George Hudson after graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1948, and has recorded and performed in a myriad of settings, ranging from big band, choral, symphonic, to small ensembles, executing a number of styles, from straightahead and Latin to fusion and funk. He released over seventy records, and several of his songs have been sampled on hip-hop tracks: “Swahililand” (“Stakes Is High,” J Dilla and De La Soul), “Pastures” (“Feelin’ It,” Jay-Z), “I Love Music,” (“The World Is Yours,” Nas), and “Poinciana” (“Stop Frontin’,” KRS-One).

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Jamal’s release of “Poinciana.” In this interview, conducted by phone in Paris, and from his home in Connecticut, Jamal unveils the story behind “Poinciana,” his early struggles in Chicago, and how his artistry lives on in the twenty-first century.

 

What brought you to Chicago in the early ’50s? 

I came to Chicago in 1948 because of my girlfriend at the time. I couldn’t work because there was a [union] restriction. I could work, but only at a different place every night, because there was a six-month period when you go from one union to the other. I was caught doing a job I wasn’t supposed to be on, and I was told, “I don’t think you’ll ever get in this union as long as I’m president,” by Harry Gray. [laughs]

How did you straighten it out?

Well, it was straightened out because the musicians started wanting me to work with them. I don’t remember the name right now, [but] there was a great tenor saxophone player. He said, “I want to have this man on a regular basis in my band.” So Harry Gray relented, and I became a member of the union. And later on, he helped me buy my first house! He helped me get a loan from the credit union. So man cannot play God, Mr. Holley!

What else did you do to make ends meet?

I got me a job making kitchen cabinets for eighty cents an hour. That’s one of the ways I survived. I was [also] playing [solo]. I was working all over the place with various groups. Then I got a job as a maintenance man on the sixteenth floor of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building for thirty dollars a week, cleaning up the busiest revolving doors in the world—cleaning up the snow at Monroe and State Street. I worked Jimmy’s Palm Garden [solo]. Ike Davis, the legendary drummer, used to come in and sit in with me. And Nevin Wilson, a bassist that I liked very much, came and sat in with me.

It was during this period that you met two musicians who would change your life: Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby. 

Vernel was from New Orleans, one of the great musical towns in the world, like my town, Pittsburgh. He had that wonderful New Orleans [Creole] mixture, which speaks to this ridiculous concept of ethnicity that we have. They say “races.” There’s no such thing as “races.” There’s only one race—the human race. And one of the proofs is the wonderful, wonderful mixture you have, complexion-wise, coming out of New Orleans. I was Israel’s pianist at Jack’s Back Door: a marvelous guy, a wonderful musician, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked my work—like a lot of people did—and, thank God, they did, because that’s how I survived. He hired me as his pianist, and I stayed at Jack’s Back Door with him and [saxophonist] Johnny Thompson for I don’t know how long.

Isn’t it true that you started working at the Pershing as far back as 1952?

I was able to get in there one night. They didn’t want to hire me. But I begged [manager] Sonny Boswell to let me work there. I think he paid me fifty-one, fifty-two dollars for one night [laughs]. But I had to go to Harry’s Show Lounge. I was working in the back room there. And then I ran into Miller Brown and Grant Smith, who bought the Pershing, and they gladly hired me. But that was after I left New York and decided to come back to Chicago. 

The record producer/impresario John Hammond signed you to the Okeh label around 1951 and brought you to New York for an ill-fated Manhattan engagement at the Embers. 

The Embers was a noisy club. You’re an intermission group; you’re not the headliner. People are not paying you any attention. They want requests, and some drunken bum comes up and spills a drink on the piano keys, and his red wine is flowing all over the white keys. So that was it for me. I jumped up, got in my car with Israel Crosby, and we drove all the way back to Chicago. 

So you come back to Chicago from New York for an extended period at the Pershing. What was the club like? 

It was located on Sixty-fourth and Cottage Grove Avenue. And it drew everyone from Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, with her Chihuahua dog, to Sammy Davis Jr.—he was in the Pershing the night before he lost his eye in Las Vegas in that car accident. Everyone came to the Pershing.

 

Jamal LP - Pershing

 

The classic Ahmad Jamal sound emerged during your long association at the Pershing. What were your musical influences during that crucial period of your development?

I had my Pittsburgh influences. I grew up with all sorts of orchestras playing in venues all around the surrounding area. I worked with [pianist/saxophonist] Carl Arter, one of the prominent musicians around Pittsburgh, and Joe Westray hired me. He was one the more successful bandleaders. I was playing at ten years old with people like Honeyboy Minor, a legendary drummer who had all of the best jobs. My aunt sent me a lot of music from Wilson, North Carolina. So I had a vast repertoire. When I was eleven years old, I could play with guys sixty years old. I was making more money in the eleventh grade than my father was making in the steel mill!

So you were a child prodigy.

Well, whatever you want to call it. I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole. I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first and only Afro-American opera company in the country. That’s were I met violinist Joe Kennedy, one of the great masters of all time. She put Afro-Americans in the Metropolitan Opera. And she surrounded herself with all ethnicities. She worked out of the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a unique person: always dressed to the max. You could hear her heels coming down that stairway. If you didn’t have your lessons ready, you were in trouble. [laughs] She was wonderful. And I went to another teacher, [pianist] James Miller: a wonderful man and an exponent of Liszt.

So now you’ve established the Jamal sound. But before you recorded your monumental record with Crosby and Fournier, you were part of an influential, drumless trio called the Three Strings with guitarist Ray Crawford.

The group was a carryover from the Four Strings with violinist Joe Kennedy. I joined his group. And after he decided to go back home [to Pittsburgh], it became the Three Strings: Ray Crawford, [bassist] Tommy Sewell, and myself. So we had string instruments only. Ray Crawford started playing the percussive effects on the frets of his guitar. And everyone adopted that, [including] Oscar Peterson’s group, with [guitarists] Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. Many, many people emulated Ray Crawford. He was replaced, because he stayed in New York when it didn’t happen [for me] in the Embers. He didn’t come back to Chicago, and that’s why I added drums.

Talk about some of the people who helped make At the Pershing in 1958, starting with Leonard Chess. Who decided that it was a good idea to record there?

I decided! I told Leonard I want to do a recording on location at the Pershing. Leonard was always cooperative when it came to whatever I wanted to do musically; he never interfered, so he said okay. He sent a two-track machine out there with [engineer] Mal Chisholm—one of the spectacular, great engineers at that time—and that was it. Four nights and forty-three tracks later, here comes At the Pershing!

What about disc jockey, Soul Train producer, and voice-over artist Sid McCoy?

Sid McCoy was instrumental in encouraging that session. He was very prominent in Chicago. He had one of the very, very important shows in Chicago. Great speaking voice—he had a manner about him and was a nice man.

I want you to set the record straight: in Len Lyons’s book, The Great Jazz Pianists, which also features you, Sun Ra claims that he worked downstairs in the Pershing when you were there and implied that you were influenced by some of his concepts.

He had nothing do with my career. I had nothing to do with his. Nothing! We never worked together, and never socialized, and never interacted musically. He was on another planet. And I was another level!

When did you first hear “Poinciana”? 

 I was introduced to “Poinciana” by way of Joe Kennedy [in the late ’40s]. That song was a part of his repertoire [with the Four Strings]. Joe Kennedy was a master at composition, a master at playing the violin, a master of orchestration, and so many things. So he introduced me to a different type of repertoire. 

Your first recording of “Poinciana” was made in 1955 and reissued on The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings. 

We did the [LP] version with Ray Crawford, Israel, and myself. It was one of my favorite recordings—gorgeous! It was so pure and so elegant and great to listen to. 

The song, by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon, was originally from a Broadway show.

Yes, I don’t know too much about “Song of the Tree,” better known as “Poinciana.” It was a hit, of course, but we revived it. I don’t think anything was ever as big as “Poinciana” was on 628 [the original label number of Ahmad Jamal Trio Live at the Pershing] turned out to be. And so many people tried to cover that and tried to emulate that. When we developed “Poinciana,” we developed it chorus after chorus, until it got to the point where I said, “We got to record this.” 

 

Jamal LP - Poinciana

 

The biggest change from the epic, drumless trio rendition of “Poinciana” to the Pershing version was, of course, Vernel Fournier. Talk about how he anchored you and Mr. Crosby and created the “Poinciana” that made you into an international star. 

It was a combination of things: Israel Crosby’s lines, what I was playing, and Vernel—if you listen to his work on “Poinciana,” you’d think it was two drummers! [laughs] He was so multidimensional: a master of brushes, master of content, master of metronomic time, and feeling. All of those elements from all three of us made that recording. [The song] was seven minutes and some seconds long. There are five different choruses, and each chorus is an entity into itself: a statement that builds and builds and builds. Each chorus became a stepping-stone to something higher. And when we got to the fourth chorus, [laughs] that was it! We had a hit on our hands! 

The album stayed on the Cash Box and Billboard charts for 108 weeks. How did it change your life?

You mean, how is it still changing? [laughs] It’s still changing, Eugene! It never stopped because of that. I’m sitting on the phone with you, talking from Paris, and you’re in Delaware, so I’m all over the place because of that record.

Yes, but at least financially your life changed?

Well, life has many challenges than it did before. Success has to be measured on all levels. And if you’re not content, you’re not successful. Just because you got fame and money coming in, [it] doesn’t make you successful. The successful person has peace of mind. And if you don’t have peace of mind, the money can be a very difficult thing to handle, let me put it that way.

Was it difficult for you at first?

It’s difficult for all Afro-Americans who have ever been exposed to financial gain. Look at Joe Louis; what happened to him? He was very successful, wasn’t he? He worked for the government and ended up owing the government taxes. And I don’t know if they relented or what—the rumor is that Frank Sinatra bailed him out. Maybe I’m just talking nonsense. But Joe Louis had all kinds of people come along and tell him to invest in this, and invest in that. So most of us in the Afro-American community weren’t educated as to the whys and wherefores of how to handle money, and, in many instances, that’s still true.

After At the Pershing, you did something that most Black people at that time didn’t do: in 1959, you went to Egypt and the Sudan. There was a New York Times report of your trip.

Oh, I’ve been planning the trip since I was eleven years old. I always had some great, philosophical dreams of going to Africa, because I knew that’s the background of our folks here in the United States. So I was planning this way before the Pershing [LP]. What the Pershing did was implement that [trip].

Who told you about Africa at eleven years old? That’s extraordinary.

I was always thinking. I was always an introvert—always a loner and a thinker at that time, and music made me more introspective. And I thought of faraway places. My faraway dream was to go to Africa, and I accomplished that by way of my recording. I broke Count Basie’s record at the Blue Note in Chicago. Frank Holzfeind was going under, and I saved his club. Frank gave me an extra five hundred dollars to enjoy my trip to [Africa], and there I went. The ex-minister of the interior of the Sudan hosted me, and Dr. Mahmoud Shawarbi was my host in Egypt. I didn’t play a note, and that what was so surprising to the New York Times reporter, because I didn’t go there to play piano. I spoke at Al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.

Another benefit of your “Poinciana” success was your own South Side restaurant, the Alhambra, which opened for a few months in 1961.

The Alhambra was a very nightmarish venture, encouraged by a lot of people around me. It was conceived as a place for me to work whenever I wanted to. But it didn’t work out that way. And I hired the wonderful bass player, Ahmed Abdul-Malik in my absence. I had forty-three employees. I didn’t need a restaurant. Who needs a restaurant if you’re a musician? So I left Chicago, moved to New York, and have been here ever since.

Here’s another attempt to set the record straight. Your club did not serve alcohol, and there were rumors that you were forced to close the club by gangsters.

Oh no, no, nothing like that at all. That’s what people want to hear. But I had no constraints. To the contrary, I was more dictatorial than anyone else. I closed it myself, because I didn’t need a restaurant. And the headache that goes with the restaurant. I had a big house at 4900 Greenwood that time—sixteen rooms, six baths. I didn’t need that either. The only major, major conflict at that time was my divorce, so I moved to New York.

After you moved to New York, you thought about retiring to study at Julliard. But you eventually formed a new trio with drummer Frank Gant and bassist Jamil Nasser.

Before I put that trio together, I had Papa Joe Jones, who used to be with the legendary Count Basie, and a bassist from my hometown, Wyatt Ruther, with me at the Embers. That was the first job I took, coming out of semiretirement. Jamil and Gant had a reputation long before they joined me, so I hired them based on their backgrounds as great musicians. They stayed with me for ten years. 

At various stages of your career, you’ve specifically hired drummers from New Orleans.

I had four drummers from Louisiana: Vernel Fournier, Idris Muhammad, Herlin Riley, and James Johnson, from Shreveport, by way of Pittsburgh. Idris is one of the great, great legends out of New Orleans, drumwise. He’s really a sensational musician, and he has more [stuff] on the Internet than I do! 

I want to talk about something I’ve seen every time you play live. Please decode for me your mysterious hand signals.

I’m conducting. [laughs] My finger pointed to the top means I’m going to the top of the composition. When I cross my wrist, that means either I’m going to the bridge, or I’m going to cut the time. And sometimes I do verbal cues. I don’t always confine myself to hand signals.

 

 

You recorded some great LPs in the ’60s and ’70s with your new trio: Extensions, The Awakening, and one of my all-time favorites, Outertimeinnerspace.

I knew you were going to mention that. That was done in Montreux. The interesting thing about that [LP] was that the Fender Rhodes was broken; it was only working on one side of the speakers. So it’s an interesting record, because the Fender Rhodes was giving half of what it was supposed to. [laughs] It was an “electronic malfunction.”

Fifty years after “Poinciana,” you still take songs, put the Jamal touch on them, and make them your own, like on your new CD, It’s Magic, a collection of original compositions and selections from motion picture soundtracks.

It’s the strongest thing I’ve done since At the Pershing! Most of the time, I’m not entirely pleased with everything. But this is a special, special gift from the Creator. It was produced with the same formula I used for 628. I used the same editing formula. I recorded for four days in Strasbourg, and I only chose nine tracks. So, history repeats itself!

 

Eugene Holley Jr. is a Delaware-based journalist. His work has appeared in many publications, including Down Beat, JazzTimes, Hispanic, The New York Times Book Review, Philadelphia Weekly, Vibe, and The Village Voice.

 

Notes

1. Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles, the Autobiography (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1990) 178. 
2. Eugene Holley Jr., “Ahmad Jamal: A Lasting Impression,” American Visions, (October/November 1994) 47.

05/10/18 Tracks

Habibi Funk dropping rare Sudanese soul/jazz by Kamal Keila

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German label Habibi Funk has dug up some more African rarities for our ears, this time from Sudan. Local musician Kamal Keila—dubbed the Fela of Sudan—never had a chance to release his music on vinyl or even cassette, as Sudan didn’t quite have the thriving musical scene as neighboring Ethiopia or metropolitan Egypt, or West African nations like Nigeria or Ghana.

“He did, however, record sessions for Sudanese radio,” the label explains. “In Sudan, the radio stations were not allowed to play the recordings produced by music labels on air, therefore they had their own studios and invited musicians to record music for their program. In most cases, the musicians would not receive a copy of the recordings out of fear that they would release the music themselves. But luckily, Kamal Keila had gotten his hands on two sessions and had kept those two studio reels all these years. Both tapes were in the most horrible condition with mold everywhere and obvious signs that they had gotten very wet at some point. Much to our surprise, they played very well.”

One of the ten tracks discovered is called “Muslims and Christians,” debuting here.

What sounds like a recording from the mid-’70s, with Ethiopian musical influences noticeable, the recording is actually from much later. The Habibi Funk guys were shocked when they found a sheet in one of the reels that dated the recording August 12, 1992.

The double-LP, Muslims and Christians, will be released by Habibi Funk July 6, and you can pre-order a copy now.

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04/23/18 Mixtape

Steppin’ Heavy Mix Series #1: Boogie Bangers

Compiled by Induce for Wax Poetics

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Wax Poetics are excited to present the Steppin’ Heavy Mix Series, a fresh mixtape series curated and compiled by our good friend Induce.

Induce breaks down the first mix Boogie Bangers in his own words:

“In the first installment of the series, I wanted to come in heavy, strong and long. I’ve been wanting to put a mix like this together for a while – somewhere between the quintessential and the obscure, there’s a little for everyone here, be it timeless classics, or under the radar neck-snappers. And since all but one of the songs here are from the original 12” pressings (although no recent represses), I wanted to let the tracks stretch out a bit, foregoing the quick mixes for the fulfillment of maximum funk.”

Tracklist:

1. Gwen McRae – Funky Sensation 12” (Atlantic) 1981
2. Bill Withers – You Got The Stuff – Special Disco Version 12” (Columbia) 1978
3. Syreeta – Move It, Do It 12” (Motown) 1981
4. Michael Wycoff – Looking Up To You 12” (RCA) 1982
5. Conway And Temple – Love Lights 12” (Old Town) 1982
6. Kinky Foxx – So Different 12” (Sound Of New York) 1983
7. Leroy Burgess – Heartbreaker 12” (Salsoul) 1983
8. Candy Bowman – I Wanna Feel Your Love 12” (RCA) 1981
9. Roberta Flack – Lovin’ You 12” (MCA) 1981
10. Fresh Band – Come Back Lover 12” (Are’N Be) 1984
11. Mystic Merlin – Mr. Magician 12” (Capitol) 1982
12. C-Brand – Wired For Games 12” (Spring) 1982
13. Mel Sheppard – Can I Take You Home 12” (The Sound Of Brooklyn) 1981
14. Barbara Jane – I Like The Way You Move 12” (Blue Parrot) 1983
15. Oliver Cheatham – Something About You [from Saturday Night LP] (MCA) 1983
16. Colors – Am I Gonna Be The One 12” (First Take) 1983
17. Take Three – Tonight’s The Night (All Right) 12” (Dance-Sing) 1983
18. Mikki – Dance Lover 12” (Renaissance) 1985
19. Raw Silk – Just In Time 12” (West End) 1983
20. Opal – Nice And Slow 12” (Silver Cloud) 1983

 

Stay tuned for the next mix, and find more from Induce here:

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04/19/18 Articles

DJ Premier on the Making of Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth

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Gang Starr

 

Fist fights. Improper farewells. Alcoholism. Guns in suitcases. The agonizing emotional depth from which Moment of Truth emerged was unlike anything seen in Gang Starr’s previous decade of work. According to DJ Premier: “We’ve never been as depressed while making an album.” 

1998 was a fertile year—Lauren Hill was miseducated, OutKast were astrological beasts, while Mos Def and Talib were the best alliance in hip-hop. All were hurling towards the millennium with stunning vigor, experimentation, and contemplative material. Guru and Preemo, at this point by comparison, had four releases under their belt stretching back to their 1989 debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy.

The pair had just come off a successful run of celebrated works, Hard to Earn and Daily Operation, both of which helped forge a style that would forever define the East Coast’s sonorous aesthetic. Gang Starr still spoke to New York’s rap coterie but, this time, more of the world was listening. Guru deconstructed his handle to an acronym—Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal—while Preemo’s cuts and flagship production aided (and in many cases, anchored) projects by Group Home and Jeru the Damaja, respectively. Minus a handful of cuts and lead singles, Moment of Truth was overall a subdued effort, shook and inward, directly introspective. “Robin Hood Theory,” “What I’m Here For,” “JFK 2 LAX,” and others all have an undeniable sunken quality to them. 

There’s also a feeling of tenseness woven throughout, all of which was wholly due to the state of Preemo and Guru’s working relationship. Not only did future projects hinge on a looming court case, but years of collaboration were slowly being drowned by years of addiction. “I left the recording sessions during the making of this because Guru’s drinking had gotten out of hand,” says Preemo. “Guru was also about to go to jail and the trial came up so we made sure the album cover would match in case he was actually locked up while it was released. There moments during the making of this where we stopped speaking to each other. I told him unless he gets his alcoholism under control we ain’t doing this anymore. He agreed.”

“You gotta understand, you cannot make project after project with someone you don’t love. If we had bad energy our music wouldn’t have come out right,” Preemo remembers. “We’d literally punch each other in the face but next thing you know, we’d be at the bar with our arms around one another.”

In late 2007, I interviewed Guru and made sure to mention Moment of Truth. When asked which among Gang Starr’s projects were his favorite, he replied: “It’s a tie depending on my mood. [laughsStep in the Arena or Moment of Truth, definitely.” “Hard to Earn is my favorite,” says Preemo. “But as far as the most important Gang Starr album? Moment of Truth ranks number one for me. It was very personal for me and Guru.” As it stands, Moment of Truth remains the only project both members mention as personally impactful to both of them. As the release turns two decades old, I reached out to Premier and had him break down the album, track by track, to explore the transpirations behind the making of a Gang Starr masterwork.

 

Moment of Truth

“You Know My Steez”

For one, we always knew how to pick our singles and we’ve always presented what we wanted to the label rather than the other way around. Sometimes they tell you what they are feelin’ or what they’re not, but at least with our structure, we’ve always had some say and they trusted us and it worked. So we picked “You Know My Steez,” “Royalty,” and “The Militia” to roll out the album.

We always had a list of ideas that Guru wrote down and was in charge of, and we’d tack it to the wall of the studio. And we’d just randomly go. We don’t say, “Let’s do the club hit today,” or “Let’s do the single today.” We just come in and do what we feel. If there wasn’t a title yet, Guru would have parentheses next to the each track number with our notes with a description. With this one, the notes said this would be the single.

I already had the idea of what I wanted to do with the Grandmaster Flash “Flash It to the Beat” sample. Showbiz used it on a skit for Runaway Slave. We used to all hang out—me Showbiz, Large Pro, Pete Rock, Diamond D; we saw each other all the time. We were cool and shared what records we used. So I wanted to do my own interpretation of it after hearing how Showbiz used it. And the lyrics on the hook are obviously from GZA’s “Shadowboxing.” It just always stood out to me. I was really happy I finally got the chance to use it.

 

“Robin Hood Theory” 

This is actually the first song we recorded for the album. It’s the first one I already had that beat looped as it is. I used to drive around bumping this beat for months. [laughs] It’s a subtle beat, it’s more quiet, the drums are not heavy, and there isn’t a hard snare. I just love this beat. When I played it for Guru, he loved it. And this isn’t one of those beats I would present for any artist I was working on a song with. It’s not a dope beat for a hard single—it’s an amazing beat for when you’re working closely with someone and they know how to construct themselves around it. It was the definitely the right song to go on after “You Know My Steez.” I’ve been sequencing every one of our albums since day one. I’m used to sequencing. I sequenced all the Gang Starr records. I mean, I sequenced Illmatic

 

“Work”

This was actually done for the movie Caught Up, so it was already a finished record. We really liked it and wanted to add it onto the album. So we pushed for it and after the film was released, they granted us rights to put it on this project. We had to wait for a certain time frame for the movie to have been out.  I felt like it set the album up perfectly sound wise, as well as the direction of the following songs.

 

“Royalty (ft. K-Ci & JoJo)” 

Obviously, Moment of Truthwas very feature-heavy, because at the time, that was beginning to be the new thing. Before, Guru and I never really had outside collaborators besides those who were already in the inner circle—our team, the guys you heard on Daily Operationor Hard to Earn. Guru said that he wanted someone that had equivalent success as us with singing skills to work on this album.

So the label finally connected us through the phone and the first thing K-Ci and JoJo said was like, “We don’t want to do an R&B type beat, or a popular loop, and just have us sing on it. Make a Gang Starr track and have us on it.” So I already thought that was real cool of them, and we connected right away. Most people would’ve just had them sing over some shit and make it work. But I think with this it actually sounds like a Gang Starr track.

 

“Above the Clouds (ft. Inspectah Deck)”

Guru had always wanted to get Ghostface on this album. He also wanted to get Raekwon on here too, for that matter. And since Cuban Linx popped off so hard, Rae and Ghost were seen as in a different tier than some of the other Clan members. Where Deck is that underdog MC compared to Meth or something. So I said maybe we should get Deck instead of any of the others, and Guru agreed. This was before email existed.

We got on the phone, and Deck asked us, “What is this song about?” And Guru just said, and I’ll never forget, “This song is about your mental,” pointing to his head. Deck goes, “Is that it? Just write about my mental?” I was sitting there thinking, “Umm, let’s elaborate a little more on this, guys,” but Deck just said, “Yup, I got it! I’ll meet you guys.”

So he comes to the lab later. Both him and Guru are standing on opposite ends of the control board facing each other and everyone had their notepads out. I threw the main loop on and told them to keep writing while I put together an intro. There was no Pro Tools, so I really wanted the intro to set up everything perfectly for when the beat kicks in. While I’m working on the beat, I keep seeing them look up at each other like little kids in class. Guru then said he was ready and wanted to go first and we were off and running. I kept peeking up to see them working and they kept taking off their headphones and smiling so I knew it was going to be good. 

 

“JFK 2 LAX” 

This whole song is a real true story. Even the voicemail you hear was real. Guru had a late session all the way up to the time he had to get ready to head to L.A. And at that time, someone would always have a pistol packed, even if it were just a recording session. Back then in those days, having a pistol on you wasn’t a big deal. People could see you in the studio for a lengthy amount of time, think you got money because you’re making records, and try to rob you as you’re leaving. So you had to be protected.

Guru ran home after this late recording session to grab one of the suitcases that he had already packed. It just so happened he grabbed the one suitcase with his pistol in it. So when he tried to get pass security with a gun in his carry on, you got caught. I had hired a criminal attorney at the time for some other criminal stuff. We have an entertainment lawyer too, of course, but this guy was there to help us with criminal stuff and that’s what That track just matched the feeling of the whole ordeal. Guru had once told me that he wanted to do a song about this situation with the gun and the song captured the right emotion we thought. 

 

“Itz a Set Up (ft. Hannibal)” 

Hannibal Stax—now he’s just called H.Stax. They were tied to Illkid stuff we did as well. They had a song off the third Illkid release Guru put out. So we wanted to extend the branch a bit and let them get on and be part of the foundation. It’s a hard track and I think he delivered great on this. This wasn’t meant to be anything deep, just more having our friends on and delivering hard since all the other songs were slower an heavier. 

 

“Moment of Truth” 

The first verse was a universal verse anyone could relate to. Guru was going thru a trial at the time, so it was really heartfelt. That’s why the second verse was about his fear of going to prison for five years. And that’s why he told me to name the album Moment of Truth, because our attorney told us that if he did go to jail, it would be right when the album drops, and he wouldn’t be ’round to do any of the promo. This entire track is real personal but also has a very universal appeal to it.  Everything that Guru wrote about, all the fear and anxiety, all of it, he was really feeling inside.

 

“B.I. vs Friendship (ft. M.O.P.)” 

MOP by that time were already family. So the first verse was supposed to go to Jeru but it didn’t because we just had a falling out with each other over some business stuff. So we wanted to address it and Guru felt the best way to do it was through song. MOP being on there didn’t mean we were co-signing them over Jeru or anything. Jeru and I went back to being the best of friends a few years back, and I hadn’t even seen him since like ’98.  I’m happy to say Jeru lives in Germany now and has all his paper shit all right, so he helps us bring a lot of artists out there to Hamburg. It’s all love. We saw each other at a friend’s funeral years back and we hugged and caught up. This year we’re going to work together again. So this song addresses all of that.

 

“The Militia (ft. Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx)” 

The plan was to always have a posse cut. We’ve always been a Freddie Foxxx fans. Before we even worked with each other we always had a lot of respect for him. We used to see him with the Paid in Full posse. He was like, “Yo man, we need to get in the studio one day!” and we just all clicked and had so much fun. He came in the studio with a mink cap, mink gloves, and mink coat. And he had two glocks on his hips. And he was like, “When I spit my verse, I need to take these guns out!” And he did. He did the verse in one take with two guns clenched in his hands. I was sitting to his left and remember thinking hopefully them shits don’t go off while I’m recording this verse! So I moved seats. He left the building after one take because he had another meeting to go to.

 

“The Rep Grows Bigga” 

That was the only song where I already had the hook done first and gave Guru guidelines on how to go in and do it. I never exactly know what I want to hear lyrically on a track but I had the frame of the song ready and Guru just did what he did and it ended up being really good. I want to shout out our friend Matoka who shouted out all female prisoners. Most guys just shout out other guys. But Matoka just came off of a long bid and shouted out all female prisoners on and others off the top of her head; the judge, her home girls, her guy, all that.

 

“What I’m Here 4”

This is how we get down period. I love the piano loop on this one. This song represents what we do to the fullest. There’s a message in the song and at the end of the day we feed the people with the Gang Starr shit. This is a melodic one. It’s also slow and focuses on our feelings. It also sets up the tempo for the next track. 

 

“She Knowz What She Wantz”

Guru usually has a track on our albums that he produces. Like he did “Code of the Streets” for example on Hard to Earn. He’ll bring me the elements for the songs and I help put it together, or he’ll have them all done and I just go back and revamp the drums or something. Or I’ll add some more bounce to things. So I just took the vocals and sharpened up. He had already done this for a TV show or something. It’s a little different on how his original uses the sample, but I just programmed the drums. He presented it already done and I just made sure everything sonically blended on this track. 

 

“New York Strait Talk” 

I was doing bass-line loops and wanted a hard bass loop for follow up the last joint. This was mainly to pay homage on how New York accepted us being even though we’re original out of town— I’m from Texas and Guru’s from Boston. But I’m proud to be considered honorary New Yorkers because through the years, no matter what, we laid it down for New York. And people can tell just how much we love NY. It’s also just saying how people love us when we go home as well as when we’re in New York. I mean, when I go home they call me Chris not Preemo.

 

“My Advice 2 You” 

Guru came up with the concept. We have a lot of friends who need to borrow a lot of money or needs this or that. They’re always in the pen and they always turn to us. It’s sometimes annoying when they ask too much, but every now and then if you need a loan, it’s all good because they’re our loved ones. And sometimes you don’t even get the loan back, [laughs] but it’s all good. It comes with the territory. These days if someone asks, I’ll just say no, especially at my age. [laughs] 

 

“Make ’Em Pay (ft. Krumb Snatcha)”

Guru did this one too. He had the beat almost finished and presented to me.  Guru had already did the vocals and we didn’t have the Krumb Snatcha part yet. Guru had always been a fan since. When I met Krumb he had just gotten out of the hospital and was shot nine times. He was eventually around a lot. He got a “Hip-Hop Quotable” inThe Source and that’s hard for an unknown album. Anyways, I liked it but I asked him to give me all the parts and let me resample other parts. We got Krumb on it and after I re-worked stuff this is how everything turned out. 

 

“The Mall (ft. G-Dep and Shiggy Sha)” 

This was just a let’s have fun song. We used to go to the mall to shop all the time and also to pick up girls. G-Dep was a homie. Sometimes people would run up to us at the mall and next thing you know we’re at a house party with them. We used to throw house parties a lot back then. So this was just a fun, less heavy track than the others. 

 

“Betrayal (ft. Scarface)” 

This one almost didn’t happen. My friend, call me and made a suggestion. He was like, “You guys need to get Scarface on there, man!” We were waiting for his verse for so long we almost missed the deadline because we needed to send it to the record label. We got to a point where we were like, “Yo, we really need to master the album to make the release date. If we don’t get it by tomorrow this won’t happen.” It takes a long time to get everything together including the vinyl manufacturing and everything. I knew Scarface from my Texas roots and made sure Rap-A-Lot was down. This one barely made it though and was by the hair of my chinny chin chin. [laughs

 

“Next Time” 

This is the only one we didn’t have a title for. Plus Guru wanted another song on there. And our accountant had just past, Mary Coleman, I used to call her Mommy Mary. I have a tattoo on my arm that says Mommy Mary with her birthdate and some clouds. Being that she just died, she died the day after we shot the “You Know My Steez” video. It was Jerry Heller’s nephew, Terry Heller, who directed the video.

I remember trying to call Mary. I just kept calling and calling there was no answer. She had cancer and was dong really bad but was hanging in there. I finally got in touch with her daughter who told me which hospital she was in. Mary had given me info that if she checked into another hospital other than the regional one, it would be under her maiden name. So I called and called. I was told I had to wait. I even told them I was her son. I got the run around and more run around and they kept passing the phone to someone else. By the sixth time they put me back to the first person I spoke with and he told me Mary had just died a couple hours ago. 

Guru wanted one more song for the album but I was so depressed I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t function. I was crying all day everyday and couldn’t even focus. So he pulled me into the lab and I pulled out some records to sample and just made that beat for us. The sample I used sounded like it matched my depression. Guru walked in and loved it right away. I couldn’t come up with anything energetic or happy. He said we was gonna call it ‘The Next Time.’  I didn’t think people were going to like it. I really love this song because it wouldn’t have existed if Guru didn’t force me to make it and the song is a dedication to Mary. The sample sounds like it’s crying to me.

 

“In Memory Of…” 

We had just known so many people who we loved that died by the time the record was done. Mary was gone. Cats from Guru’s recent tour had passed. It was supposed to be an interlude outro thing but Guru decided he wanted to rap over it because he wanted more. We all wanted so much more. 

 

 

04/19/18 Tracks

Jan Kincaid’s MF Robots premiere new single “Scary Monsters”

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MF Robots

Just over a year ago, Brand New Heavies cofounder Jan Kincaid upped drum-sticks and strutted off into the call of the night with co-writer and then BNH lead singer Dawn Joseph to form a brand-brand new group called the MF Robots, named in a swipe at the current state of the music industry, MF as in “Music For Robots” to give them their official title (or not so officially—for the sailors amongst you—“Muthafuckin’ Robots”).

The mission, to step outta the constraints of being a part of one of the U.K.’s longest running and most successful rhythm & blues bands, and as a duo, use their mastery of funk, soul, and pop to create something dynamic, vibrant, and fresh.

“It’s about liberation, about being freed from musical constraints and perceptions—pushing the envelope and challenging ourselves whilst making it edgy,” says Jan, talking of the new project in the band’s bio.

“It’s about not being afraid, just doing it for yourself and having a really good time doing it; making sure our audience has a really good time too,” adds Dawn.

Indeed, the new single “Scary Monsters”—premiered here and preceding the forthcoming release of their debut album Music For Robots (out on May 4 via Membran Music)—sounds markedly different from their work on recent Heavies albums. Still funky and upbeat, it’s like a high-octane Jones Girls, if they had assistance from Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton, with Junie on keys and Ray Hayden in the booth pouring them a cup of tea—there’s a lot of classic going on between the crisp, new grooves. But don’t take my word for it … without further ado, dig it.