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Independent Weekly: “To Not Be Afraid”

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Picture swiped from Phonte’s Twitter. Genuine blog content coming soon, I assure you. For now though, check out this week’s Independent Weekly because I’ve got a big cover story on Yahzarah’s The Ballad Of Purple St. James, featuring Phonte, and Nicolay from The Foreign Exchange as well. Really, these guys are making some of my favorite music right now and I can’t say it enough. Click below to read it:

The soul singer Yahzarah lounges comfortably near the window of the Beyú Caffé in downtown Durham, her poise protected from the sweltering mid-July afternoon outside. Her head is shaved, and she dons bright red heels and a short, tasteful animal print dress. In person, she presents the same singular mix of traditionalism and outré cool that defines her new LP, the excitable and often devastating Ballad of Purple St. James.

The Ballad of Purple St. James is a weird record. Not Lady Gaga Fame Monster weird or even Janelle Monae The Archandroid weird, but weird because it’s a sprawling, rarefied expression of a uniquely talented artist with a willingness to speak and sing—wonderfully—on very personal and intimate things. It’s the sort of willfully individual R&B record you don’t hear anymore.

Yahzarah smiles when she remembers handing Phonte Coleman—the Little Brother emcee who had been her frequent collaborator and friend for more than a decade—a draft of what would become her third album, The Ballad of Purple St. James. At that point, she’d been working on it for nearly three years. “He told me, ‘Nicolay and I can make you a better record,’” she recalls, surprisingly bemused. Coleman was referring to Nicolay Rook, the other half of his forward-thinking, grown-up soul group The Foreign Exchange. A record produced by these Grammy-nominated critical darlings might have afforded Yahzarah instant legitimacy and attention.

Written by Brandon

July 28th, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Be Thankful For What You Got.

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Posted this last Thanksgiving but thought it’d be appropriate again, so I drastically rewrote it and here it is. Have a good holiday.-b

Like What’s Going On? or all those Sly and Curtis albums, William DeVaughn’s 1974 album Be Thankful For What You Got is politically-minded soul–but it’s also quieter than those message music classics. Less concerned with tackling the big picture head-on, DeVaughn’s record is fascinated with all the smaller things that made Marvin wanna holler and made Curtis confident that if there’s a hell below, we were all gonna go. It’s a minor soul masterpiece tinted with a “the people’s history” approach.

Be Thankful For What You Got’s focus is less the world’s problems than those directly affected by those problems. Opening track, “Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand” celebrates the guy behind the desk or the dude who picks up your trash without reducing the titular “little man” to a symbol of this or that. The less explicit point of the song though is, “no one else is paying attention to regular-ass people” and that’s particularly true in times of historical turbulence and change, which was the climate of 1974–when the country was coming out of Vietnam, the boiling over of Watergate, when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, when Hank Aaron beat Babe Ruth’s homerun record, when the “Rumble in the Jungle” took place, when Beverly Johnson smiled proudly from the cover of Vogue.

That’s to say, in an attempt to bottle-up all the socio-political insight and outrage and even joy roving around, the piece of art that’s “political” often loses track of the people really being twisted and turned by that history. So, when DeVaughn’s album begins with a polite guitar and the sound effects of a room applauding, it’s a gift to the people often skimmed over for that broader, sweeping message about the state of the nation.

And on “Something’s Being Done”, the album’s sorta reassuring closer, DeVaughn assures listeners that change will come and stuff will get better. The fact that stuff’s not currently all that good–the focus of most political music–sits around in the background: He wouldn’t have to tell listeners things will be better if they weren’t bad right now. That DeVaughn looks ahead with a little less cynicism than other political soulsters and rockers probably has a lot to do with DeVaughn still being “the little man” himself.

DeVaughn’s sensitive to “the little man”, so he knows that hearing how bad everything is, all the time, is a little unnecessary, even obnoxious, because “the little man” knows it, sees it, and lives it, day in and day out. When a big star get political, it’s noble, but it’s decadent too; rarely do the the concerns of the singer/artist affect that artist on a palpable, daily basis. And it’s this disinterest in trying to be a voice of the generation musician and just being a thinking, affected-by-shit singer instead that makes Be Thankful… so humane and wisely closed-off from giant statements.

“We Are His Children” is a simple celebration of God. “You Can Do It” takes on vice and kindly urges people to stop drinking too much at parties. “Kiss and Make Up” encourages reconciliation, getting over the little stuff and moving on. There’s a brilliant, teasing aspect to the chorus, where DeVaughn coos “Let’s kiss…and make up” and that “make” plays on the tens of thousands of love songs heard and you expect it to be, “Let’s kiss and make love”.

But it isn’t. For now, DeVaughn’s concerned with the very immediate present of just not arguing or “taking off our rings”. It’s like that scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep where works-in-a-slaughterhouse Stan embraces a dance with his wife but quietly rejects her increasingly feverish advances for sex–because shit’s just too heavy on his mind, body, and soul. “Kiss and Make Up” has that kind of world-weary, wordly-wise sensitivity inside of it. 70’s soul merged with political let’s get-alongs bumping into let’s get it ons.

Another reason for DeVaughn’s specific form of modest social protest meets “it could be worse” appreciation may be his roots in Washington, DC. Marvin Gaye too, was from DC, but Marvin was already a celebrity by the 70s, no longer as closely connected to the city. DeVaughn sang on the side and worked for the government until he stumbled upon the soon-to-be-classic “Be Thankful For What You Got”. Gaye addressed the politics with a question, DeVaughn answers with a sincere but simple statement. This is common for people from or residing in the District. They’re way closer to politricks than the rest of us, and are more apt to digest the bullshit and come up with a pithy answer, and skip over the self-righteous indignation stage.

Musically too, it resides somewhere between comfort and ready-to-break-out ennui. Quite a few songs kick-off with a memorable slam of drums or stab of strings (“We Are His Children”, “Sing a Love Song”) before politely slipping into a groove, like that first moment of knee-jerk frustration with something on CNN followed by the point where you get your head around it a little more and actually process the reality of it all. Take the title track, which is all slow-burn atmospheric organ, with some plucked funk guitar that all just sits back and supports DeVaughn’s brilliant chorus that lays out what “you may not have” (“Diamond in the back, sun roof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”) all the while assuring you that it’s okay to not have it and that you can “still stand tall”.

Though DeVaughn’s answer isn’t as attractive as Marvin’s rhetorical question, it’s not as simple or besides the point as one might think. DeVaughn’s not so much telling you not to freak, or to just chill-out–indeed, you don’t sing this much about how we don’t have to worry if you’re not worried–as he is adding some right-minded moderation to Marvin’s message from the year before, eschewing the get-with-it cynicism for minor victory appreciation.

further reading/viewing:

-Funk My Soul on Be Thankful…
-Killer of Sheep Trailer
-Beverly Johnson on her Vogue Cover

Written by Brandon

November 26th, 2009 at 12:26 am

Posted in William Devaughn, soul

Timmy Thomas’ Basement Soul Masterpiece

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Probably because Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” is spare like a demo–just a clunky drum machine, voice, and organ–or maybe it’s because Thomas’ plea for peace is a hushed yelp in a world of echo, like he knows the song won’t change real-life (though it did in some small way, becoming the anthem for South Africa’s first free elections in 1994), but Why Can’t We Live Together? (1972, Glades) is less your typical socially-conscious soul classic and more like a guy working all that out in his basement. Comparisons to Nebraska might be a good way to sell it to somebody, because of the stripped-down appeal, but also because it’s just a kind of terribly soul-crushing listen.

Intimate without shouting-out how intimate it is–something even Nebraska does–and really not trying to be anything but some kind of super-spare expression of worry and concern, Why Can’t We Live Together?, song and album, are really like nothing else released at the time or since–save for say, the 90s lo-fi movement, or a couple of random jams from Faust. Had the album not yielded a hit, had LPs stacked-up, slowly disseminating around the country, the album might be getting some kind of fancy-pants re-release now. A piece of lost weirdo soul.

As it stands, Thomas was afforded a pretty successful career well into the 1990s, moving into some progressive disco on The Magician and from there, into some fairly successful Quiet Storm things, but this album, like so many soul albums, is just sort of relegated to “whatever” status these days. While we stand behind new jack soul-jackers like Mayer Hawthorne or some Brazilian Jazz Funk rarities, the dudes that like, palpably affected soul history get pushed to the side.

“Why Can’t We Live Together” is slightly catchier, a tad more upbeat than the rest of the album, but it’s as much a song that sets the tone, that trains the conventional radio-listening consumer in 1972 to accept an album of sorta improvised, voice, drum machine, and organ work-outs, as it is the obvious stand-out single. You know the song already and so, real quick just revisit it and check out the way the drum machine seems to slowly deconstruct, the tinny knocks coming closer and closer together later in the song, like when you bounce a ping-pong ball on the table and bring the paddle ever-closer to the table’s surface, creating this weird arhythmic rattling. What’s so cool about this, is it’s the same weirdness that developed when much more consciously arty musicians started screwing around with their electronic equipment. Finding a piece of awkward beauty in imperfection…on a machine designed to sound “perfect”.

There’s a moment on “Take Care of Home”, an appropriately confused song about the tension between America’s global responsibilities and the in-house ones it just keeps shirking, where Thomas mumbles out “helps me out right here!” and a few moments later, between a coda-like cry of “take care of home”, ad-libs “you know what I’m talking about?”. Yeah, it’s a recording and soul/funk often does this call-and-response thing, but there’s something meta, something extra-solitary about it here. The record drips “guy alone in a room”, so the calls seem consciously directed towards nobody.

That it’s followed by an instrumental cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which sounds more like something from the Eraserhead soundtrack than a soul album only drives home the solitary nature of Why Can’t We Live Together?. In terms of just stretching the soul blueprint to its limit, the one-two punch of “First Time”s circus-funk and the “Walk On By” on a budget “The Coldest Days of My Life” (itself a Chi-Lites song), are a fascinating inversion of the slow-growing epic production sweeping Philly and Detroit and Memphis when Thomas holed-up to make Why Can’t We Live Together?.

Hard to imagine, but the album actually grows darker as it goes along, save for the personal anthem/album-ender “Funky Me”, Side B seems focused on institutionalized and inescapable fate for the oppressed. Beginning with “In The Beginning”, which just explains the formation of the earth, with a focus on the visceral and horrifying (darkness, lightning) and in lieu of a hook–the song’s either all hook or has no hook, you decide–has Thomas doing call and response with an abrasive lightning sound effect. A laconic, creation-myth organ vamp.

From there, disdain and even contempt bubble over. “Cold Cold People” kicks-off with Thomas lamenting “those S.O.Bs” and then sings in the voice of any and every victim of oppression since well, the aforementioned “beginning”. You’d think it’d let-up on “Opportunity” but the song’s essentially that 1970s soul version of “Umma Do Me” or some insular vision of “by any means necessary”, in which Thomas half-apologizes for being single-minded (“This world is big enough for both of us/But I can’t let you have my share”) but knows that’s the hand he’s been dealt, lamenting “Now I’ve got to wheel and deal for perfection”.

Calling Why Can’t We Live Together? consistent would be an understatement. It’s singularly focused. Just a bunch of songs whirling around in the same sonic territory. Every song kicks-off the same: The snap and pop of the drum machine, some plinks and plonks of an organ, Thomas’ voice slowly creeping in touching on the personal and political and then, a fade-out or abrupt end. It doesn’t let-up and shifts ever-slightly, but that’s about it, just a bunch of bummed-out dirges for Thomas to sadly wail over. It’s just one of the loneliest records out there.

further reading/viewing:
-Why Can’t We Live Together? (Glades, 1972) from Snap, Crackle, & Pop
-Timmy Thomas entry in All Music Guide to Soul
-”Stone to the Bone” by Timmy Thomas off 1977’s The Magician

Written by Brandon

October 9th, 2009 at 5:10 am

Posted in Timmy Thomas, soul

What They Gown Do? NOTHING.

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Rod Lee “What They Gown Do”

When I talked to DJ Sega and DJ Tameil in Rod Lee’s record store Club Kingz, Rod Lee hung out upstairs eating chinese food and blasting Gospel music that was like, the most soulful shit I maybe ever heard. To a lot of people, it might’ve seemed weird for one of the biggest names in Baltimore Club music to be listening to Gospel but that’s incorrect. As I just told y’all, the truly avant-garde, the actually balls-out creative takes some sideways, inside-out approach to its influences.

When vet Club producers discuss the difference between their shit and the kids all over the world trying their hand at their city’s weird music, the word “soul” comes up a lot: How much soul they’re music has, how much soul they put into it, how little soul there is in any music right now, how little soul there is in breaking-down the music of poor-ass Baltimore kids into a bunch of signifiers (horns, “Think” drums, stuttered-samples) and slapping a tag of “Bmore” on it. You get the point.

On “What They Gown Do”, all those signifiers are there for sure, but there’s more going on too. It’s a big evil anthem for not giving a fuck, an indirect way of calling pretty much everybody out there a big fucking pussy and an edifying piece of dance music about really giving a fuck. Rod gets cartoon gutteral and tells you, “Don’t let nobody take your pride, stand tall, right!?” Simple but direct…and universally smart advice all the same.

This song, from 2006’s Volume 5: The Official, maybe the only Club release that if you looked hard enough, you just might find in the cut-out bin of your local record store is pretty much the only thing I’ve been listening to this week. On the way to work on a loop and on the way back, each and ev’ry day–as Rod says it here.

Written by Brandon

August 11th, 2009 at 4:07 am

People Get Ready To Wait On The World To Change

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-”People Get Ready” by The Impressions

-”Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer

-”People Get Ready” by Seal

One of the odd effects of working retail is spending a lot of time with music that at best, you’d never choose to listen to and at worst, is just plain awful. The new Seal album Soul is all soul covers and although most of it’s pretty useless, it isn’t exactly terrible and he’s backed by a band that sort of does its own thing, neither translating soul music grit into ready-for the mini van sheen or trying, trying, trying to sound like Willie Mitchell and friends (something some of Mitchell’s friends did on their own with Cat Power’s The Greatest). Soul’s produced by David Foster who I understand is a big deal if you’re a homosexual.

Most interestingly though, is the album-ending cover of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready”. Backed almost entirely by some scratchy guitar, Seal’s voice (which doesn’t hide his British accent) does a pretty heartfelt variation of this oft-covered song. The prominence of the guitar turns the cover, if you’re not listening very hard, into a cover of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change”, a song Pitchfork hilariously described as “preaching the gospel of non-action and civic apathy”.

Of course, Mayer’s “Waiting” did the thing of quoting “People”s melody and so, it’s partially a case of reading music history backwards, but still, there’s something about the prominence of technically good but still a little messy guitar on Seal’s version that makes it sound like it’s trying to in part, reference Mayer’s song too. Maybe it’s just that Seal, like Mayer, doesn’t have the vocal subtlety of the Impressions, but there’s something interesting and weirder going on it seems.

It’s very hard not to contextualize a cover of “People Get Ready” in the fall of 2008 as having something to do with Barack Obama’s presidency and especially because Mayer’s song was such a mind-bogglingly stupid and problematic variation on political songwriting, Seal’s cover becomes a history of politically engaged pop and a comment on the shift from activism to apathy and back again through America’s recent, historic election.

Written by Brandon

December 8th, 2008 at 8:07 pm

Be Thankful For What You Got.


As much message-music as What’s Going On? (or any Sly or Curtis classic), Be Thankful’s a quieter statement, but still full of 70s ennui about political, social, and spiritual matters. DeVaughn though, seems less concerned with driving right into the big picture than investigating the many causes that made Marvin “wanna holler” or Curtis to tell us we’re all going to hell. Opening track “Give The Little Man A Great Big Hand” is a celebration of the guy behind the desk or the guy who picks up his trash and the implicit point rather than explicit point is, “no one’s fucking pay attention to the little man.” The explicit point’s an endearing celebration of said “little man”, never reduced to a symbol of this or that.

On the album closer, “Something’s Being Done”, DeVaughn assures listeners that change will come and stuff’ll get better and again, the fact that stuff’s not currently that good walks around in the background instead. He wouldn’t have to tell us things will be better if they weren’t bad right now. That DeVaughn looks ahead with less of the cynicism of other political rockers and soulsters probably has a lot to do with DeVaughn himself still being a “little man”, singing on the side and working a government job.

DeVaughn knows that the “little man” doesn’t want to hear about how bad everything is all the time because he already knows it and lives it every day. When a superstar gets political, it shouldn’t be scoffed at, but they’re almost always coming from the angle of not being directly affected by it anymore…they’re looking out for the little guy.

-”Give The Little Man A Great Big Hand”

DeVaughn is the little guy. He never falls into the decadent cynicism that very popular, voice of the generation musicians can usually afford to fall into. On “You Can Do It” he takes on vice and kindly urges people to stop drinking too much at parties. “Kiss and Make Up” is a celebration of reconciling, getting over the little bullshit in life and moving on. What I think is really brilliant about the song is how DeVaughn pauses and holds the note before he finishes the chorus. 70s soul merged political let’s get-along with sexual getting it on and it makes you expect him to sing “Let’s kiss and make love” but he’s more concerned with the immediacy of just making up and so, that’s the focus of the song. I’m reminded a little bit of that scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep where works-in-a-slaughterhouse Stan is more concerned with dancing with his wife and being close to her than having sex with her (despite her increasingly feverish advances) because shit’s heavy on his mind, body, and soul.

Another reason for DeVaughn’s specific form of modest social protest meets “it could be worse” appreciation is his roots in Washington, DC. Marvin Gaye too, is from DC, but Marvin was already a celebrity by the 70s, no longer as closely connected to the city. DeVaughn sang on the side and worked for the government until he stumbled upon the soon-to-be-classic “Be Thankful For What You Got”. Gaye addressed the politics with a question, DeVaughn answers with a sincere but simple statement. This is common for people from or residing in the District. They’re way closer to politricks than the rest of us, and are more apt to digest the bullshit and come up with a pithy answer, and skip over the self-righteous indignation stage. Probably has something to do with like, seeing the cocksucker Senator that’s pulling some bullshit jogging near the Mall as you walk to work…

And musically too, it’s got a kind of relaxed, comfortable but alert feeling. Quite a few songs kick-off with a memorable slam of drums and stab of strings (“We Are His Children”, “Sing a Love Song”) and then politely step back into a groove, like that first knee-jerk frustration with something you read about in the paper before you better get your heard around it. Other songs slowly waddle along, getting more nuanced and complicated with layers of organ and polite vibes that build-up to some kind of in and out, gets the job done solo and then back to the groove again. Take the title track, which is all slow-burn atmosphere organ, with some plucked funk guitar that all just sits back and supports DeVaughn’s brilliant chorus that lays out what “you may not have” (“Diamond in the back, sun roof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”) all the while assuring you that it’s okay to not have it and that you can “still stand tall”.

-”Be Thankful For What You Got”

While DeVaughn’s answer isn’t as sexy as Marvin’s rhetorical question, it’s not as simple or besides the point as one might think. That’s to say, when John Mayer dropped the “People Get Ready”-quoting “Waiting On the World to Change” a few years back, it truly was, a Pitchfork brilliantly said “preaching the gospel of non-action and civic apathy”. DeVaughn’s not so much telling you not to freak-out or to chill-out–indeed, you don’t sing this much about how we don’t have to worry if you’re not worried–as he is adding some right-minded moderation to Marvin’s message from the year before, eschewing the get-with-it cynicism for minor victory appreciation.

William DeVaughn’s Be Thankful For What You Got is perfect on-the-recliner stuffed with food, stoned off the shit in turkey that makes you sleepy type music that fits the big ugly gluttony and the sit back and realize you got it pretty good traditions of Thanksgiving.

Written by Brandon

November 28th, 2008 at 3:20 am

Posted in William Devaughn, soul

Metal Lungies: Alchemist Beat Drop

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“The weird loops of nostalgia and reverse nostalgia coursing through Alchemist’s “The Man/The Icon” beat are nearly too much to parse out. Let’s start with Alc taking “Lucky Me” — a piece of near disco from Philly soul legends The Stylistics — and chopping it back into the warm R&B they were doing five years earlier. Those disco party strings become warm Thom Bell orchestration, near Santa Esmeralda horns revert back to the gloriously maudlin sound we associate with The Stylistics; it’s all tight and immediate instead of loose and bell-bottom ready…”

Written by Brandon

October 27th, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)


When Isaac Hayes became as well-known for being a voice on ‘South Park’ as he did for his funk-soul compositions, it didn’t negate or overshadow his musical contributions as cynics and snobs like to suggest. Rather it made explicit the weird tension between sophistication and willful goofiness that had always been a part of his persona. Late in his career, Hayes often performed outdoor venues and free festivals with a band that wasn’t perfect, but didn’t reek of super-clean studio bullshit, still did 10-minute plus versions of his hits, and also found a place for “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls” in-between “Walk On By” and “Theme From Shaft’”.

As he sang about his uh, balls, he did it in the same voice he was just singing about “foolish pride” and he sort of had this shit-eating grin on this face because he was getting away with it and because he was having fun and not racing through the hits. That same grin was probably on his face when he aggressively titled his album ‘Black Moses’–and meant it in a way, right?–or made goofy album covers like that one for ‘Chocolate Chip’ or ‘JuIcy Fruit’. And the grin was wider because he knew the albums themselves weren’t goofy love jams, but music that had its roots in popular genres like soul, funk, and R & B–there’s some psychedelic rock in there too–but also moved into far more unexpected areas of arrangement and composition. Think of those regal strings on “Walk On By” and how they quickly become terrifying and back to regal again. Or “Cafe Reggios” from ‘Shaft’ which balances being the kind of cornball elevator jazz played in a place called Cafe Reggios and being a signature Hayes composition full of subtle details…a guitar that gets thicker in sound as the song progresses or the perfect interplay between immaculate piano and warm keyboards throughout.

Hayes was basically a jazz musician in the sense that he relied heavily on improvisation and group/band interplay and understood that covers and reinterpretations were actually less restrictive than original material. And like the best jazz musicians, Hayes understood that music needed that tension between raw immediacy and mindful intellectualism. It’s actually not that hard to make “pop” music “sophisticated”–every few years some new rock band discovers electronics or an orchestra and dummies go crazy in ‘Spin’ or ‘Rolling Stone’–but it’s harder to find Hayes’ understanding of the high and low, and their merger (because he’s smart enough to see there’s not a difference) because his work never screamed out “I’m a genius composer who just happens to sing lots of songs about fucking over top baroque soul symphonies!” This is what made it not only okay but just logical that he’d also end up as The Duke in ‘Escape From New York’ or as a sexy chef on a cartoon.

Along with Hayes, the only other soul-based musicians that really seem to fully grasp this weird tension I’m babbling about are Donny Hathaway and Philly Sound pioneer Thom Bell. Hathaway understood the immediacy of a good hook but he also explicitly flirted with classical music. In the liner notes for ‘Extension of a Man’, Hathaway confidently but modestly discusses the “Romantic Period” influence on his own soul-suite “I Love the Lord: He Heard Me Cry Pts. 1 & II”–and adds “My writing was also inspired by George Gershwin”–and it’s a song that probably maybe wouldn’t exist without the work of Hayes a few years before. Thom Bell’s strings too, have as many roots in classical as they do the studio experiments and production flourishes of pop and R & B of the 60s. Bell himself cites one on his biggest influences as the booming string music from Gladiator genre pictures of the 50s and 60s. In 1971 of course, Isaac Hayes would score a genre movie himself, the “blaxploitation” movie ‘Shaft’ and elevate it to mainstream popularity and Hollywood recognition with an Oscar.

“Walk On By” off ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ (1969): This song’s been sampled plenty of times, most effectively on “I Can’t Go To Sleep” by Wu Tang, so I thought I’d highlight a few other excellent uses of the song.

-‘Walk On By’ by Pete Rock: It’s pretty telling that Pete Rock didn’t even change the title of this beat. Maybe it’s out of respect or some sense that no matter what it was called, those stirring strings would still be super obvious. As expected, Rock flips it well, giving it a more upbeat feeling than the original and subtly using Hayes’ breathy vocals for like, a half-second in the loop.

--”Dead Bent” by MF Doom off ‘Operation: Doomsday’ (1999)

Doom uses those super-identifiable strings but he takes advantage of the wobbly, disturbing stir of them instead of the elegant, catchy intro string-part. Like most of the ‘Operation: Doomsday’ productions, it’s cheaply or strangely looped–at least from a conventional musical perspective–and so, the strings bump into one another and whine, but that works because more than any song that swipes from “Walk On By”, “Dead Bent” feels the most like the original in terms of feeling on-edge.

--”Dead Presidents” directed by the Hughes Brothers (1996)

You can hear “Walk On By” faintly at the beginning of this clip from the climax of the Hughes Brothers’ ‘Dead Presidents’ as it scores the fucked aftermath of the characters’ bank robbery, and it comes back to score the final moments of the film, particularly the fate of Larenz Tate’s character Anthony. Setting the end of their movie to ‘Walk On By’ makes it clear that Isaac Hayes was making movie score-ready music way before ‘Shaft’.

‘Dead Presidents’ is the Hughes Brothers’ most realized and singular movie, even as it grabs from plenty of 70s American and 70s black cinema it feels more like it’s informed by those movies than it is totally paying homage. It’s over-the-top and clearly not that researched in its war scenes, but it has a kind of comic-book feeling that heightens the emotions and the political and message-oriented aspects of the film. That it ends with Martin Sheen of ‘Apocalypse Now’ damning Larenz Tate’s post-war actions is super-obvious but effective because it’s so obvious. It’s also brave enough to take on the failings of Black Power and the church and their roles–in addition to a government that had no interest in its soldiers–in moving the Tate character–and implicitly, the many Americans in the same boat as him–towards the fate-sealing bank robbery of the film’s climax.

“Man’s Temptation” off ‘Black Moses’ (1971)
-“Unknown Track” by J Dilla off ‘Pay Jay’ (Unreleased, 2001)
-“Animal Planet” by the GZA off ‘Legend of the Liquid Sword’ (2002): Producer Bink, best known for his Roc-a-Fella work, sampled “Man’s Temptation” for a beat that presumably first showed up on Dilla’s solo album back in 2001 when it was supposed to get a release, and then showed up on GZA’s ‘Legend of the Liquid Sword’ from 2002 when Dilla’s solo got shelved? I think my favorite part of this beat is how Bink occasionally uses Hayes’ keyboard plinks every few bars.

“The Come On” & “Light My Fire” off ‘Live at the Sahara Tahoe’ (1973): Sorry if the quality of this isn’t great, I couldn’t find it anywhere online so I had to rip it from my LP. Basically, a long-ass cover/interpolation/reworking of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”–also covered by Al Green around the same time on 1971’s ‘Al Green Gets Next To You’–that never ends up sounding much like the original but that’s more than okay. It’s technically two tracks and each part got it’s own groove on the record but I just made it one track because who the fuck knows exactly where “The Come On” ends and “Light My Fire” begins.

“The Come On”s just this epic, wah-wah chase music jam with a really incredible sonar-pling sounding keyboard workout before sort of turning into an actual cover. What’s additionally interesting about it–and shows the extent of Hayes’ musical brilliance–is the way Hayes ties all these not-so-apparent musical threads together between the Doors and his own music. Hayes’ voice sounds similar to Morrison’s infamous croon (and of course Morrison himself got a lot of his vocal and physical theatrics from 60s soulsters) and The Doors’ music is heavily influenced by jazz and fusion and soul, so there’s this interesting sense of borrowing and returning going on between the original and Hayes’ “cover”.

“Hung Up On My Baby” off ‘Tough Guys OST’ (1974)
-‘Tough Guys’ Radio Spot: Obviously, the sample used for Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and probably one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. The guitars shimmer and glow, the horns wander along, and it’s all kept together by a really simple beat. Also, just for fun, here’s a radio spot for ‘Tough Guys’.

Isaac Hayes At the Movies
In addition to ‘Tough Guys’–which is sort of hard to find and only half worth-it–Isaac Hayes has been in a lot of really cool and interesting movies. He’s the star (and again, composer) of ‘Truck Turner’ which is a really solid action movie. The main thing I recall about it are the fight scenes which were sort of hand-held and shot with a really wide-lense which looked really cool. Hayes is a really fun and naturalistic actor who always seemed to be enjoy his roles. The same way he would use his deep voice and tone in music, Hayes did the same in acting, to both dramatic and comedic effect. Listen to him mumble “hey…” in the ‘Truck Turner’ trailer below and then say “i got some beer…”; it’s really funny and self-aware but vulnerable too.
In ‘Escape From New York’, he’s genuinely intimidating and scary and its a role where his fame and image work perfectly because he’s playing this weird, near-mythic Duke of futuristic shithole New York and Hayes’ stage persona is similarly appealing but commanding. Everything in ‘Escape From New York’ has this weird balance between being campy and over-the-top but somehow realistic too and Hayes dives into it with lots of sincerity.
And finally, Isaac Hayes as comedic straight-man to Chris Rock’s goofball jean-vest and yellow T-shirt-wearing cheapskate:

Written by Brandon

August 13th, 2008 at 12:58 am

Posted in Isaac Hayes, RIP, Sampling, soul