Manu Dibango has been churning out his soulful blend of jazz, funk and afrobeat for over half a century, despite in the Western Hemisphere being remembered often simply as a session player in Fela Kuti’s Africa 70, or more likely, not at all. Dibango, arguably the most important saxophone player alive in Cameroon, if not the whole of Africa, deserves more of the recognition that he so aptly received, with the release of O Boso, over forty years ago. His most successful album, released in the middle of his career—he actually has been active since the 50’s—offers a multitude of musical styles that defy easy categorization and a clear time-stamp. Lead single “Soul Makossa” practically invented disco, but looking back at this untarnished masterwork, which introduced the dance mantra “ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa” (refrained from Lafayette Afro Rock Band to Michael Jackson to Kanye West, and anyone with a passing interest in shaking a leg), is reflecting on the beginning of modern dance music in the late 20th century. Despite the single’s rarity in the Bronx upon its quiet release, it was a short time before the record went from coveted radio and dancehall gem to being covered by anyone who wanted to keep a beat longer than the then-standard three and a half minutes. The rest of O Boso is equally lasting, despite offering some somber turns in contemplative afro-folk tracks like “Lily” and the unlikely jazz fusion bellwether “Hibiscus”. Dibango has released countless albums, all worth seeking out, but this is the diamond in the rough worth coveting for a musical lifetime. Timeless and peerless, O Boso was a perfect glimpse of bright things to come in propulsive 4/4 time.
One quarter of a century down the road that has been hip-hop’s journey from its
golden era to boom-bap selling pretzels in Rold Gold commercials, De La Soul’s
debut is holding up very well, thank you. It was a watershed moment in rap, only
partly thanks to the fresh stylings of members Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove and
Pasemaster Mase. Their “Daisy Age” style and the era it beckoned arrived fully
formed, and had the three eschewing standard profanity and boasting for positivity
and inclusiveness. (The closest they get to shock rap here is referring to a female as
a “garden tool”, and only facetiously—not exactly a tact shared by contemporaries
NWA or 2 Live Crew.) Before the 90’s brought In Living Color, Do the Right Thing
and Cross Colors overalls, the three young wordsmiths, backed by initiate Prince
Paul, represented one of the most vibrant movements in the much smaller hip-hop
universe at the time, and America in general. Prince Paul, who produced the
entirety of the album and its many template-setting interludes, deservedly has been
immortalized for his deft filtering of samples through a rose-tinted lens. Whereas
the Bombsquad, responsible for building Public Enemy’s early and best beats out of
gnarly funk breaks, created a minefield for Chuck D to issue commands over, PP
stitched together a picnic blanket of sound. Never do the tracks threaten to taken
center stage, but rather embrace each vocalist in a supportive hug. Seriously.
Whether it be “The Magic Number”, “Eye Know” or “Buddy” (featuring fellow Native
Tongues members Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip), the love is palpable and the rhyme
delivery and production, positively lofty. Twenty-five years on, this near-perfect
introduction to De La is still rising.
Nicolas Jaar’s Space is Only Noise is a slow-grower that somehow manages to gently fit the sonorous musings of Leonard Cohen and Robbie Robertson into a framework of modal techno and downbeat micro jazz. There is a bit of saxophone, French spoken word, classical piano and café-compatible mood music here too, so one can be forgiven for initially writing this off as trivial background stuff to decorate your apartment with. But really, this is headphone music of the highest order, weird and extremely re-playable. “Problems with the Sun” is as quirky as it is ruminative and sounds like what DJ Screw would have managed if he pitched way down African-American work songs of the early 1900’s instead of Houston hip-hop. Somehow, when time slows down to a syrupy crawl like this, one can balance worries about not getting enough accomplished with the fact that the clock is broken and it is impossible to keep track. Space is Only Noise is a world apart from contemporary EDM and you can expect Jaar to get the time right more than twice here over its fourteen tracks. These decidedly minor (some long, some extremely short) pieces that he cobbled together from years of recordings are miles apart from his work alongside Dave Harrington as Darkside, but resonate just as strongly. Once that side-project ceases this fall, if Jaar is as prolific as has been intimated online, I have high hopes for future patchwork LP’s which may just still sound like what was once best about Isolée, Matthew Herbert, Deadbeat and even Mr. Cohen. For now, Jaar is still our man when it comes to nearly uncategorizable electronic music so small that you could practically sweep it under any rug—one that you would gladly then dance upon.
Judging by Haircut One Hundred’s relegation to the discount vinyl bin that time forgot, it is easy to place this early 80’s assembly as a new wave also-ran. But revisiting this important debut by an under-appreciated band yields plenty of comforts for someone pining for simpler times of plastic, polyester and bright-eyed optimism. Hardly the stuff of Margaret Thatcher-era England, mind you, but the soaring spirits of these preppy post-teens is far from milquetoast. Compared to the effervescent work of Culture Club and Spandau Ballet—also new wave, new romantic chart runners of the era who deserve more respect than they are now allotted—the first iteration of “the 100” is positively muscular, palpable pop. “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)” could have been titled “Band Meets World” had there been longevity and foresight in the voice and heart of lead Nick Heyward. He is iridescent throughout the track’s take on Talking Heads-style afrotronics, several years before that became a thing with Byrne and cohorts’ Speaking in Tongues. This lead single, followed by the tropical crooner “Love Plus One” and two others, cracked the Top 10 in England, bringing the band brief radio play and prominence. Sadly, Heyward was too big for his Haircut and wool sweater; soon after Pelican West exhausted its singles, he attempted an unsuccessful solo career. Haircut One Hundred had one more album in them (the relatively dull Paint and Paint), but with a new, inexperienced lead, they never quite took off again.
Caught in a pocket of time between sojourns in Miles Davis’ fusion groups and the towering presence of Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin’s Devotion is a pivotal instrumental work. It is also a snapshot of the lyrical guitarist at his most raw and unadulterated. The sunny idealism of the Summer of Love had soured into something more sinister and heavy by this time, and it shows in the prescient licks of this talented session guitarist and expert arranger, with a little bit more sweat and blood than usual. McLaughlin has never had a heavier hand independently before the Devotion sessions, which occasionally elevate the composer and his crack team of musicians to heights later occupied by Mahavishnu. While the latter perfected the push-pull of deft improvisation and beautifully ornate song structure, Devotion is a firm fist in the face that only incites the listener. McLaughlin is coruscating here, and it may be hard to imagine that the rhythmic guitarist of Shakti—McLaughlin’s later Eastern spirituality-driven acoustic side project—could be capable of the horizontal dirge of “Devotion” and “Don’t Let the Dragon Eat Your Mother”, but there was a time when this multifaceted guitar instrumentalist had it in him.