July 23, 2016

Blackjack – Stay and Maybe It's the Power of Love

During the early 2000s, a young, new producer quickly rose through the ranks within the east coast rap community. He created a trademark for himself of finding old records, mostly soul songs from the 1970s and 1980s, and using them as sped-up samples in his various productions. While he created hit after hit for all the world-renowned artists that queued up for his services, he made sure to stash away the best and most unique samples. Some day he would need them for his own debut album. A long forgotten 1980 hard rock album must have given him much inspiration as he sampled it twice during his early career as an up-and-coming producer/rapper at Roc-a-Fella. 

When it comes to seeing through
The fool in me, the thing I found
One thing I've found
Lover, you never let me down

In the late 1970s, Michael Bolotin was a struggling rock musician. He had released two classic albums of both covers and original songs under the RCA Records label, but attracted no interest from neither public nor critics and was dropped by the label. To restart his career, Bolotin met with Bruce Kulick, a guitarist and member of Meatloaf’s touring band, and the two decided to form a new band together. The two sat down to write material for the band and were joined by two accomplished studio and touring musicians, drummer Sandy Gennaro and bass player Jimmy Haslip, to form a hard rock quartet. 

Quickly signed by Polydor Records and assigned to work with acknowledged producer Tom Dowd, Blackjack soon released their 1979 self-titled debut album. Despite the label’s promises of a smash hit, the album was met with lukewarm reception. The album only managed to reach #127 on the Billboard album charts, and the lead single, Love Me Tonight, did not fare much better and reached #62 on the Billboard Hot 100. To promote the album, the album artwork was formed to resemble a deck of playing cards. The also band embarked on a minor nationwide tour and briefly acting as opening act for artist such as Peter Frampton and Black Sabbath. 

Their sophomore effort, Worlds Apart, was released the following year. Bolotin and Kulick again supplied the band with all original songs, except for the opening song of the album, a cover of The Supremes My World Is Empty Without You, and the producer role was taken over by less acknowledged Eddy Offord. Largely ignored by their own record label and released with minimal promotion, Worlds Apart failed to make any impact on the record buying audience. With no way forward, the band disbanded without making another tour.

The musicians would eventually find more success in other ventures. Michael Bolotin, to his own surprise, was given another chance by the president of the label, but this time as a solo artist. After Anglicizing his last name, he released his third solo album under the name Michael Bolton and would be immensely successful with pop rock ballads throughout the 80s and 90s. Bruce Kulick joined the iconic rock band Kiss and remained as their lead guitarist for twelve years (1984-1996).

Few remembered the short-lived rock band, but a copy of their sophomore effort, Worlds Apart, must have been among vinyls in Kanye’s collection as he not only sampled it once, but twice in his early career. Kanye West was a hot, new producer that the year before had his big breakthrough when he looped the Jackson 5 classic I Want You Back to create the first single from Jay-Z’s acclaimed The Blueprint. Asked to return for the second installment of the Blueprint series, he took the guitar riff from the power ballad Stay and looped it continuously throughout the opening track of the album. A Dream is a tribute track to the late Notorious B.I.G., featuring his former wife Faith Evans, and also samples the entire first verse of his debut single Juicy to act as the second verse of the track. The song is known for the censoring of the line “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade”, a reference to the 1993 bombing.

However, he saved the best from himself. Further down on the Blackjack album track list, he found another power ballad, with an infectious melody and a message of trust and love. An interpolation of Maybe It’s the Power of Love, sung by Chicago native Tarrey Torae, was used both as the chorus and looped, sped-up, throughout in Never Let Me Down, one of many highlights from his 2004 debut album The College Dropout. The lyrics were slightly altered from the 1980 original.

When it comes to being true, at least true to me
One thing I've found, one thing I found
Oh no, you'll never let me down

While teaming up with Jay-Z again, it was a poet and spoken word artist who stole the show. Kanye asked J. Ivy, a friend of his from Chicago, to perform on the song and he delivered arguably the best verse on the entire album. The three performers rapped about never letting down and J. Ivy, with divine inspiration, on never letting God down.

The track would receive acclaim from the sample’s originator. Michael Bolton, surprised but flattered at the second life of his old Blackjack tunes on the hip-hop scene, praised both the track and its positive message. The use of Stay and Maybe It’s the Power of Love would lead to resurrection in interest for the former band and the interest, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to the release of a new compilation in 2006.


(Note: Blackjack is not present on Spotify, so unfortunately we are unable to add them to the Spotify playlist.)

AllMusic.com Michael Bolotin
ChicagoTribune.com, DeVore, Sheryl. Michael Bolton is just getting started.
Complex.com Ahmed, Insanul. The Making of Kanye West's "The College Dropout".
Genius.com Kanye West - Never Let Me Down
Kulick.net Bruce Kulick biography 
Lakeland Ledger Barbosa, Susan. Blackjack thrills audience

July 18, 2016

Nina Simone - Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
A poem inspired by an iconic photograph of two lynched men in 1930s Indiana becomes the song of the century, covered by one of the best voices of the 20th century and ends up being sampled on a song about fame, drugs, cheating “bitches” and money. This is the story of how Nina Simone’s rendition of Strange Fruit from Pastel Blues ended up on Kanye’s Blood on the Leaves, an effort from his sixth solo album Yeezus.
She Instagram herself like #BadBitchAlert
He Instagram his watch like #MadRichAlert
He only wanna see that ass in reverse
Two-thousand-dollar bag with no cash in your purse

Abel Meeropol, the Jewish New York City English teacher behind the pseudonym Lewis Allan, first published the poem Bitter Fruit in a 1937 issue of a teachers’ union publication. A social activist, Meeropol was disturbed by the continuation of racism in America and got inspiration for his poem from a photograph that haunted him “for days”. The photograph taken by Lawrence Beitler depicted two African American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched by a mob in Marion, Indiana just a few years earlier.

Three men, the two aforementioned and 16-year-old James Cameron, had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker and raping his white girlfriend. After the three were arrested, a lynch mob of thousands gathered in front of the jail demanding the release of the three. When the demands weren’t met, the mob broke down the jail doors and dragged the three youngsters to the courthouse square. Shipp and Smith were hanged in a tree, while Cameron narrowly escaped, reportedly saved by an unidentified woman announcing that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. As Smith attempted to free himself from the noose, he was lowered and had his arms broken before hanged again. No one was charged for the murders of Shipp and Smith, nor the attack on Cameron. The photo would be spread across the country and sold thousands of copies.

Billie Holiday.
The poem Bitter Fruit would soon become the protest song Strange Fruit. It received some attention in and around New York, even rendering a performance by Laura Duncan, black vocalist and wife of Abel Meeropol, at the Madison Square Garden. Around the same time, the song came to the attention of jazz singer Billie Holiday who included it in her repertoire to close her show. Despite the popularity of Holiday’s version, negative reactions from record retailers in the South initially preventing the recording and release of the song. When her record label, Columbia Records, refused to let her record it, a special deal was struck with newly formed independent record label Commodore Records. Eventually becoming Holiday’s biggest selling record and remaining on her repertoire until her death, Strange Fruit was even named as song of the century by Time Magazine in 1999 and rendered innumerable covers.

The perhaps most memorable of them was performed by the incomparable Nina Simone. Simone, who had established herself as a well-renowned pianist and vocalist on the jazz and blues scene as well as in the field of classical music, had first openly addressed racial inequalities with her 1964 song, responding to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and a Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black children were killed. As her involvement in the civil rights movement continued, so did its reflection on her music.

Strange Fruit was included on her 1965 album Pastel Blues, one of Simone’s most memorable albums, along with another Billie Holiday cover in Tell Me More and More and Then Some. The song is performed with her characteristic powerful voice, bursting with rage and suffering, over a minimal arrangement mostly consisting of singular taps on the piano keys. While her involvement in the civil rights movement produced some of her most memorable musical moments, it was undoubtedly a factor in the decline of her musical career. She fled the country in 1970, briefly living in Barbados and Liberia before moving to Europe. During the last years of her life and still today, her music has been on a resurgence and influence artist today as well as frequently been used in films, TV series and as samples within the hip hop community.

Kanye West has a long history of Nina Simone samples. He made effective use of Sinnerman, an African American traditional spiritual song that Simone made her own also on Pastel Blues, and created the highlight of his early producer career as well as Talib Kweli’s most memorable track. Since then, Nina Simone has been go-to artist for spiritual soul and blues samples, from one on the few samples on 808s and Heartbreaks as a sample of See Line Woman appears throughout on Bad News to the appearance of Do What You Gotta Do on Famous from his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.

On Blood on the Leaves from his 2013 release Yeezus, he blends the passion in Strange Fruit with the heavy horns of TNGHT’s trap explosion R U Ready. The production is one of the most impressive of the album and the unlikely pairing a song as suspenseful as it is energetic, making it a highlight of the album. The lyrics has been regarded as disrespectful, as well as hailed as genius for its contemporary interpretation, for the use of a song about the lynching of black men in the South. Either way, Kanye West knows his Nina Simone references, well aware of both their musical significance and political background, and we have good reason to return to their collaborative efforts.


July 16, 2016

Omega - Gyöngyhajú lány

Omega. Source: http://www.progarchives.com

If you are a fan of Central European 60s and 70s progressive rock, chances are that you are familiar with Hungarian band Omega and their big hit Gyöngyhajú lány. For the rest of us, if nothing else, this will serve as an introduction to the music behind the iron curtain. One, who certainly seems to know his Central European progressive rock, or at least Gyöngyhajú lány, is Kanye West. Among the many cool and obscure samples on Yeezus, Jim Farber of New York Daily News declared the outro sample on New Slaves as the most cool and obscure of them all.

Omega formed in 1960 by two grammar school students, with their first official performance in 1962, coinciding with the formation of Goulash Communism in Hungary. The timing was no coincidence. A few years prior, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had been crushed by the Soviets, but a new foundation for the society was necessary to avoid future public uproars. Starting in 1962, restrictions on speech and movement were quietly repealed and, relative to other Eastern bloc states at the time, a liberal political approach to culture was adopted. The change of policy was essential in allowing the formation of a band that played covers of American and British rock songs.

The following years the band underwent several line-up changes, but achieved initial success making appearances at music festivals and released their first singles – all covers of well-known western songs, the first of which was Paint It Black originally by the Rolling Stones. The line-up changes, however, had brought in the willingness and talent necessary to come up with original material.

Gábor Presser, one of the new members of the band as well as keyboarder and occasional vocalist, teamed up with the young poet Anna Adamis to compose original material. In 1968, the band released its first full-length LP, a successful record in its own right, but it was the following year Omega found its true stride. The release of 10,000 lépés (10,000 steps) saw the group become household beyond the borders of Hungary and immortalized with several hit singles, including Gyöngyhajú lány (Girl with Pearly Hair).

The song was translated and released by several different groups across Europe, as well as releases in English (Pearls in Her Hair) and German (Perlen im Haar) by Omega themselves. Years later, the German rock band released an English version called White Dove as part of the live album Live Bites, with significantly different arrangement and lyrical theme. The original song tells a psychedelic story of people in darkness and a savior in the form of a pearl haired girl, as well as including a story-telling small blue elephant and the notion that it all may have been a dream, accompanied by a composition as psychedelic and unique.

Another successful outing with compositions by Presser and Adamis followed, but when Presser left and the band was subject to government censoring, Omega never reached the height of success of the late 1960s and early 1970s again. However, the band stayed active well into the 2000s. Presser himself went on to form the first Hungarian super group, Locomotiv GT, achieving further success.

More than 40 years after its initial success, Gyöngyhajú lány rose to prominence again as it was prominently featured during the last third of Kanye West’s song New Slaves, the first track, along with Black Skinhead, unveiled from his 2013 release Yeezus. The sample carries the song's lengthy outro while Frank Ocean adds vocals on top of it until Kóbor János’, main vocalist of Omega, first verse from is included in the songs fade out.

The story of the unlikely collaboration could have ended there, but recent development has again shined a light on the controversy of sampling in the hip-hop music. In May 2016, Gábor Presser filed a lawsuit seeking $2.5 million in damages for copyright infringement. According to the complaint, Presser was unaware of the sampling until he received a notice from West’s legal representation indicating that he “would like to work out a deal with you as soon as possible”, giving Presser a deadline of 24 hours to respond. Later Presser received a $10,000 check, which he according to the complaint never checked. The matter is, as of yet, not resolved.

Discogs (Omega) 
Lyricstranslate.com (English translation of Gyöngyhajú lány) 
NY Daily News (Jim Farber, 'Kanye West's 'Yeezus' is as much industrial rock as rap: music review') 
Official website of Omega (translated through Google translate) 
The Guardian (Reuters, 'Hungarian singer sues Kanye West for $2.5m over New Slaves sample')   

Father's Children - Dirt and Grime

Father's Children. Source: http://www.audacemag.com

Dirt and grime and filth inside - the story of my lifetime.

The words echo through the intro of Kanye’s Facts from his latest effort The Life of Pablo. The song in itself is not one of his masterpieces, but it’s impossible to not get enchanted by the sample testifies of a lifetime of misery and the sample is slowed down for an even more haunting effect. The story takes us to the American east coast and musical history that was stuck in a garage for almost four decades.

Ha, ha, ha, look how far we are.

Stemming from Adams Morgan, a culturally diverse neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C., founded at the end of 1960s, a three-man doo-wop group was singing to get off the streets. Initially named the Dreams, the band added a fourth member and picked up instrument to form a tight band with mostly original content written by its vocalist Nicholas Smith. As the members joined the black Islam movement, the focus shifted from doo-wop to funk concerned with its own time and the Dreams became Father’s Children.

After establishing themselves as a skillful, in-demand live band also outside the D.C. area, Father’s Children entered the studio to record the material honed during the years prior. Filled with smooth funk and soulful harmonies in songs with religious and political messages that captured the times perfectly, Who’s Gonna Save the World might have become a time stamp album essential to all funk collections today, but it wasn’t to be. As the band’s management company folded, the group was unable to obtain a record deal to get the album released. The album’s producer, Robert Hosea Williams, unable to get a dime for his efforts, stashed it inside his garage where it would remain for decades.

Relocating to L.A. and changing both their image and sound to glossier version for the disco era, the band managed to release an album in 1979 under the Mercury label. Produced by jazz trombonist Wayne Henderson, their self-titled “debut” never managed to catch the attention of a mainstream audience (however, it has found its way to some sampling credits during later years), the band soon disbanded. Re-emerging from the garage of Robert Hosea Williams, the archival record label The Numero Group got a hold of the “lost tapes” and released Who’s Gonna Save the World.

The stand out track of the album, Dirt and Grime, tells the story of a segregated society and the need to fight for freedom. Set to a slow funky groove, reminiscent of a reggae tune, the track utilizes the harmonies perfected by the group during their formative years. Four years later, in Kanye’s new year's track release Facts, later appearing on his seventh solo album The Life of Pablo, the song’s first verse serves as both intro and outro.

We means me and me seeks free. 

Discogs (Father's Children) 
Numero Group 
Pitchfork - Who's Gonna Save the World (album review) 
Washington Post (album review) 
Whosampled.com (Father's Children)