Monday, March 1, 2010

Black History Month - It's all about roots

Black History Month is officially over now, but that doesn't mean the HISTORY has become any less relevant. Take the realm of music as an example - Michael Jackson, specifically. Whether you enjoyed his music or not, it's hard to not appreciate his craft, his precision, his talent. The self-named King of Pop died less than a year ago and left a tremendous legacy.

There are very few musicians these days in mainstream music who don't cite him as a major influence. Which brings me to the point of "roots". They say, you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. So beginning with Michael and who he's influenced, let's take some steps backwards.

Alien Ant Farm remakes Michael's "Smooth Criminal"

And then there's a bunch of heavy hitters in pop music:
"While Michael Jackson thrilled fans with his videos, revolutionized pop dancing, and tantalized us with his darkly bizarre behaviour, his most important legacy is as the ultimate crossover artist: He married rock, pop, R & B, and dance music in order to smash radio formats and racial barriers in the media. Here are 10 of his closest acolytes, some of whom have followed his star to mass popularity, and some of whom may have flown too close to his supernova..."  Read More...

And while Michael was quite the genius, he had HIS influences too.
From Wikipedia: "Jackson's music genre takes roots in R&B, Motown, pop and soul. He had been influenced by the work of contemporary musicians such as Little Richard, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross, David Ruffin, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., The Isley Brothers, and the Bee Gees.
While Little Richard had a huge influence on Jackson, James Brown was for him, since early childhood, his greatest inspiration: "the master" or "a genius"...describing his performance as "phenomenal". He declared: "Ever since I was a small child, no more than like six years old, my mother would wake me no matter what time it was, if I was sleeping, no matter what I was doing, to watch the television to see the master at work."

James Brown, commonly referred to as the "Godfather of Soul", takes us on a little bit of a different direction, because he not only inspired Michael Jackson and thus had a large influence on pop music (ex: the drum loop from James' song "Funky Drummer" has been sampled more than 100 times by artists like Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Enigma and the Beastie Boys), James had a monumental influence on the world of hip hop.  

He is still one of the most sampled artists of all time on hip hop records. His style of call-and-response with his band as well as with the audience directly impacted the way that emcees interact with the audience members at shows. The breaks of James Brown songs are still among the most commonly used by hip-hop DJs and were especially popular in the early  formative years of hip-hop music. (The break beats that are the building block of hip-hop music - the best part of the record that the DJ isolates by alternating between the two turntables).

"Type ‘James Brown’ into a search engine or a sample-source website and you’re going to get back pages and pages of hits. So many that you’ll initially think you made a mistake. But no, it isn’t a mistake. James Brown samples are just that prevalent. 

James is listed as The-Breaks.coms number one most-sampled artist ever. And his total sample count of 903 is more than triple that of the nearest contender. It’s said that J.B. makes millions per year on sample-related royalties alone. So why? Why did James Brown’s music have such a pull on all of us? The answer is actually simple. It’s rhythm." (Read more here...)

So if James Brown had such a profound impact on music - who influenced James Brown?
According to Wikipedia, James decided to become an entertainer after seeing Louis Jordan perform. Louis Jordan was known as "The King of the Jukebox", and during his career that spanned the 1930s-1950s, he was able to cultivate popularity among both white AND black audiences.

He was named as #59 in Rolling Stone magazine's "Immortals: the Greatest Artists of All Time".
"...Jordan's sound was hard to imitate. At Atlantic Records, we used that boogie-woogie feel on some of the jump numbers we recorded with Joe Turner. But the main thing was the sound of Jordan's voice, the way he sang. It was a kind of talk-singing. He's actually talking the lyrics in "Saturday Night Fish Fry." Jordan was really a precursor to rap. Back then, they used to call it Harlem rhyming jive. Rap didn't just come out of nowhere." - By Ahmet Ertegun

Here's a taste of Louis Jordan's music:

Let's take a look at another one of these branches. 
I mentioned Little Richard as another of Michael Jackson's influences. "Little Richard" Penniman is often referred to as one of the architects of rock 'n roll music.

The Beatles' (listed as #1 in the Rolling Stone's "Immortals...") Paul McCartney often imitated Little Richard's trademark high pitched "Woooo!" (Listen to it here...) in early Beatles songs and has often said that he wanted to sing just like him.

The Beatles also were known to play covers of Little Richard's songs "Long Tall Sally" and "Lucille". His music was heavily covered by many artists including Elvis Presley.

Jimi Hendrix played in Little Richard's band and toured with him for over a year and began copying his flamboyant fashion and even wore his mustache in a similar style. James Brown called Little Richard his idol. And many, many other influential musicians have talked about him as major influences on their musical careers.

So where did Little Richard and many of the most popular artists of the 40s and 50s get their inspiration?
- Gospel music and the blues.

Where did these two musical styles originate from?

"Gospel music originated in the American South and is still primarily an American genre, although it has spread to other countries as well. Gospel music combines Christian lyrics, often taken from the Methodist hymnal, with American musical forms including jazz, blues, ragtime and bluegrass. Gospel music has its roots in the spirituals composed and sung by African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries." (Read more...)
"The origins of blues is not unlike the origins of life. For many years it was recorded only by memory, and relayed only live, and in person. The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Influenced by African roots, field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer." (Read more...)
      These are the roots of so much of the music we listen to and love today - and if that doesn't speak to the historical relevance of Black History, try taking another listen to your favorite songs and just start following the tracks backward.

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