Juan Atkins of Cybotron.
Seven decades. Seven songs.
1920’s-50’s: “In The Still Of The Night” by The Five Satins (1956)
Regardless of how outdated and corny barbershop quartets seem now, Doo-wop was some of the hottest music you could make at one point in the 50's. It was also significantly low maintenance, as all you needed was a few good voices and maybe a three-piece band. Many amateur groups made a swing for the big time, which created plenty of beautiful deep cuts. However, only a few songs truly define the era.
"In The Still Of The Night" happens to be one of those songs.
Obviously meant for the last dance of the night, the song is just dripping with romance. It oozes out of the simplicity of the progression, the hum of the background, and leader Fred Parris' ardent lead vocal. A saxophone solo between verses raises the tension, and when it all cools out we drift away on Parris' falsetto. "In The Still Of The Night" is an absolute classic, and for good reason.
1960’s: “I Can’t Get Next To You” by The Temptations (1969)
As far as production goes, Norman Whitfield was one of the top dogs in the 60's R&B landscape. He worked his way up through Berrey Gordy's Motown writing room with hits like "Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg". For a while, he was seen as one of the brightest young writers on the label. However, somewhere along the way, Whitfield lost the desire for concise, non-offending pop music, the type that Gordy and many of his artists loved to churn out. Acts like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix got him interested in the heavier, trippy side of R&B.
"I Can't Get Next To You" is Whitfield at the crossroads, right after he realized he could work outside of the generic structure but before he abandoned it completely, it's also a clear Family Stone ripoff. Funk-tinged guitars lay under the vocals during the verses, which uses the Family Stone format of multiple voices hopping in and out of the narrating role. Complete with onomatopoeic transitions ("chica boom" as opposed to Sly's "boomshakalaka"), it's clear where Whitfield drew his inspiration from.
Also, this is somehow the first Temptations song I ever heard. I was in 5th grade and this shit folded my brain like origami, it sounded worlds away from any music I had known before. So yeah, even if I just detailed how it's basically just Whitfield juxing Sly Stone's whole style, it holds sentimental value!
1970’s: “In Love We Grow” by Rufus (1974)
Chaka Khan was a prodigy, that much was clear from the start. Rufus' eponymous debut album introduced the Chicago vocalist to the world, and she quickly gained prominent fans like Stevie Wonder. Trained in pubs and pews alike, Khan's voice was compelling and captivating, able to take the reins of a song. "In Love We Grow" happens to be a moment where she works as a calming force, supplementing a beautiful instrumental.
Sparsely orchestrated in typical 70's fashion, most of the song is a mix of piano, both electric and acoustic. The consistent keys furrow a hole in your ear, and the melody shifts and changes throughout the verse that serves as the entire lyrical content. The lack of a typical formula makes the various modulations even more dramatic, growing in intensity where many songs settle into a groove. This pearl of a track is over before you know it, but for what it lacks in length it makes up in decadent simplicity.
1980’s: “El Salvador” by Cybotron (1983)
Techno music was a genre born of artists who had decided that they wanted to firmly leave convention behind. Challenging the idea of even needing acoustic instruments to make culturally impactful was still a vanguard act in the early 80's. Leading the charge were two men from Detroit named Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, collectively known as Cybotron. Their album Enter is a classic that's commonly seen as the starting point of Detroit techno.
"El Salvador" promptly displays the heavily synthesized warble of Atkins, with a lingering melody that's surprisingly warm and inviting. The track built around the vocals features sharp leads playing over a utilitarian drum loop, with a squelching bass accenting offbeats. Early techno sounds almost juvenile in this day and age, but when you remember that this was the first time music like this was ever made, it grants the music an age-old mark. The mark of truly original artists.
I've been glad to see that large sects of the EDM and electronic music world have really embraced the VERY black roots of the whole style. Fans of some other genres balk at the idea of acknowledging the impact of black musicians across their preferred style of music. Now we just gotta get people to admit that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was at least three times more important than Elvis.
1990’s: “Breathe And Stop” by Q-Tip (1999)
Q-Tip and J Dilla basically made a whole album, and to this day I don't think it gets enough credit. "Breathe And Stop" was the second single for Amplified, which was Q-Tip's solo debut. The sharp cuts and immaculately chopped drums give the song its stop/start pocket, but the aspect of the song I appreciate most is the adlibs.
Of course, Migos' adlibs are masterful, but I've come to prefer the subtle rhythmic game artists like The Abstract played with their backing vocals. From bar to bar he emphasizes different lyrics with a second vocal underneath, and the timing he chooses reveals the contour of the beat. It shows how if you can hang onto a word, or amp up a pair of lines, you can change the whole feel of the song, if only for a second. Q-Tip's instinct for finding the right feel in a track has always been impeccable, and he's no different here.
2000’s: “Dance My Pain Away” by Rod Lee (2005)
At first, I was a little shocked to hear how close this sounded to one of my state's greatest cultural exports, jersey club music. Noticeably slower than most Jersey club, many of the hallmarks of the style still remained. But when I realized that Rod Lee was a DJ from Baltimore it all made sense. Jersey club and Baltimore club are essentially cousins, styles that have a lot in common. It's clear which version I prefer, but Baltimore club music is still very valid, surely essential to amazing parties of years past and present.
The most important thing that regional dance traditions do is build a community of inclusion, as long as you're willing to embrace it. Jersey club music is a fiber that runs through the state (mostly North and Central though), connecting counties and creating common ground where there would be none otherwise.
It's rigorous but flirtatious, trying hard as it might to catch your eye and make you fall in love. It's a spectator sport that can turn from synchronized swimming to a duel in the Coliseum in an instant. It's probably the only pure thing we have left in the wasteland that is "America: 2018 Edition™".
Club music is woven deeply into the fabric of Jersey's communities, especially in communities of color that don't usually represent The Garden State on a national scale (it's not all Italian mob families and Jersey Shore cast reunions). Jersey Club is as quintessentially New Jersey as our weird obsession with saltwater taffy, explicitly racist sentencing practices that make black youth over 30 times more likely to be detained than white youth, and Bon Jovi's shitty music.
If you can dance the right way at the right time in the right place in Jersey, a pivotal shift occurs. The world revolves completely around you, with every eye orbiting. Suddenly you're the leader, and total strangers will treat you like an old friend, if only for a few beautiful seconds. After your time is up?
Who's next? Jump in, let's go.
2010’s: “Last Kiss” by OverDoz. (2017)
I can't seem to avoid talking about Pharrell. This is the second week in a row with a Pharrell produced song, as his work with SWV was featured last week. This is a song made about 20 years after the song I looked at last week....talk about longevity. "Last Kiss" is downright funky, to the point that it almost feels wrong to not move to it.
OverDoz. come through with the spirit of West Coast alternative rap groups like The Pharcyde and The Coup, but also fully embrace the clear G-funk roots of the instrumental. The verses are jubilant in style but forlorn in terms of their content, as the song is about a love that's come and gone. When you can make a song about missing an old flame sound like a worthy inclusion on any roller-skating rink song list, you've done something very right.
There's also a very cool behind the scenes video of the making of this song featuring the immaculate Mr. Williams, so it'd be wrong not to share it.
p.s. If you wanna be on some big music nerd shit, watch 1:58-2:30 in the video. While singing along to the beat, Pharrell instinctually just throws a delay on his own voice! He immediately echoes himself, emulating what a delay effect would do to his voice if he actually laid down the vocal (which you can tell by the final track, he really does).
Maybe this isn't a big deal and I'm just a stan but tbh that dude just seems like his mind was made for music.
Anyways, that's all I got for this week. Hopefully I'll be better at writing next time. Also if you're from Jersey and you've always turned your nose up to Jersey club.......you're lame.