Culture Corner: On the 50th Anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s

 

Bernie Langs

Detail of the elusive back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s with lyrics and The Beatles in full costume

Late 20th century philosophy took a longwinded detour from practical thought with its micro-analysis on the importance of the structure of language, but there is one idea that emerged that I find of great interest. It is the notion that once an author writes a work of literature and publishes it for a wide array of readers, in some manner the writer relinquishes his or her rights as the sole proprietor of the work. Since the reader is drawing from their own experiences, what is created in their minds brings whole new meanings, imaginations, and so on beyond the control of the original author’s intention.

Along those lines, I would suggest that after The Beatles (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and John Lennon) laid down the instrumentation and vocals for the songs on the 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with George Martin producing and scoring the orchestral charts and Geoff Emerick at the helm as engineer, the meaning of the work was passed on to their multitude of listeners as individuals. What follows here is a song-by-song analysis of my personal notion of Sgt. Pepper’s.

The LP opens to the sounds of a mulling crowd outdoors, awaiting the stage appearance of a good-time band, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A distant, surreal wave of an accordion invites the listener to join the pleasant afternoon outing. After the misery of touring and the madness of Beatlemania, McCartney devised the concept of Sgt. Pepper’s as a Beatles’ alter-ego group, who would perform the album. The famous first lines, “It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,” nods to an imagined, sweet nostalgia. The guitars are on the heavy side and Martin introduces the first break with bold horns as the crowd elicits a peal of laughter to some antic on the bandshell they are witnessing.

McCartney enthusiastically tells us in his vocalization about what we will be hearing in the “live performance” to follow, and sends the cheering crowd off to listen to singer, “Billy Shears.” We’re seamlessly led next to the quieter studio sound of Starr singing With a Little Help from My Friends. The acoustics and overall sound of Pepper’s is immediately discovered to be new for The Beatles. The mature period of the band began with its two previous albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, each boasting revolutionary songwriting and production, but still maintaining a loose feel in sections. Pepper’s, on the other hand, is musically and sonically perfect and The Beatles sang or played take after take to make sure it would be so. It’s incredibly cleanly produced and also very tightly bound, as if the band knew their efforts would be examined and listened to for many decades. This near sterility contrasts sharply with The Beatle’s swan song, Abbey Road. that is also technically perfect but very warm in production.

Continue reading

The Golden Age of Hip Hop on the Silver Screen

Owen Clark

The Get Down’s Shaolin Fantastic learns the ropes from Grand Master Flash.

Hip hop is dead. I can’t exactly recall the point at which I first heard this phrase, but it seems to be etched in my earliest memories of acquainting myself with rap music, and all of its accompanying baggage. Undoubtedly, journalistic decries of the death of entire genres of music, sports, or really anything entertainment related, have become tiresome clichés. Jazz is dead; boxing is dead; this writer’s short-lived career is dead—frankly these assertions are as banal as they are dubious. However, the only upshot of such a declaration is that it often elicits a thoughtful discourse as to how we reached this supposed nadir, and the state of things to come.

Let me just say from the outset, if you’re looking for a detailed analysis on the current state of hip hop music, you can stop reading. I’m far from an expert on the subject, and in all honesty, I detest the critic culture that currently dominates internet journalism. However, like many others, I share an affinity for rap, and see it as having a fairly unique origin and evolution that will always fascinate me. If I may be so bold, I will say that my introduction to rap music probably occurred before the standard age of the nerdy, white, middle-class demographic that I belong to. I was nine or ten when I purchased my first rap album, It Was Written—Nas’s sophomore studio offering, and follow up to the highly acclaimed Illmatic. I’m possibly stretching the truth for the sake of my ‘rep’; I definitely possess several of Shaquille O’Neil’s critically-lauded singles in my old CD rack, so who can say which came first, but let’s just say I started listening around the time that those black and white ‘parental advisory’ stickers started appearing on CDs—great job Tipper Gore, you really deterred our interest. This isn’t some sort of brag; had my sister not attended Abbeydale Grange, Sheffield’s version of Dangerous Minds, I might have been listening to the same Spice Girls CDs as my peers, but I think it led me to buy into the idea that post-gangsta rap music just wasn’t worth my time.

Flash-forward to the present, rap is certainly alive and well. Summer sixteen (the summer, not the album) was about the time I realized that the genre is to some extent semi-unrecognizable from the rap I know and love. That August, my former roommate/current friend and I attended a Lil Dicky show in Manhattan. For those of you that don’t know, Lil Dicky is a technically flawless, comedy-focused rapper, whose ingenious parodies effectively spell out all of rap’s shortcomings. The venue reeked of weed and was populated almost exclusively by teenagers (the most frightening demographic). Lil Dicky preceded Lil Yachty (why are rappers always diminutive?), who at the time I hadn’t even heard of—but that man, with his braids so bright, managed to whip the crowd of vape-high/Bud Light-drunk teenyboppers into a frenzied state. I stood back, terrified, but also intrigued. The next day, I perused Lil Yachty’s tracks on Spotify, from the safety of my living room, and came to the realization that his particular style of drawling, atonal, syncopated rap-talking, in essence exemplified the current movement in hip hop that somehow emerged right under my nose.

Accepting that you’re no longer ‘down with the kids’ can be a tough pill to swallow. But for me it came at a time when I happened to notice an uptick in the appearance of documentaries/dramatic portrayals exploring the early origins and development of hip hop music. This might be a slightly tangential straw at which I’m grasping at, but this speaks to me as a collective acceptance, that rap has in a way, come full circle. Maybe not in the true sense of that phrase, but what I mean is we’ve reached the point where we can sit back (‘with a Buddha sack’) and wax lyrical about the earlier days of the music, with a sense of nostalgia that only comes with firm, mainstream, establishment; and some current, unfamiliar deviation from our perceived norm. So with that muddled sentiment in mind, I will end this long-winded introduction and briefly review some of these excellent offerings.

Hip Hop Evolution

Originally airing on HBO, and currently streaming on both HBO and Netflix, this four-part documentary follows Canadian rapper Shadrach Kabango (stage name Shad) on a musical pilgrimage to discover hip hop’s origins in the crime-stricken streets of 1970s South Bronx, and trace key developments throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, as the genre took new and exciting directions, and garnered mainstream success. Shad takes us on a fascinating journey, revealing remarkable insights that are accompanied by a plethora of interviews with key figures in the rap community, both past and present.

The show explores crucial innovations in hip hop, beginning with the founder himself, DJ Kool Herc, and his ‘merry-go-round’ idea of using side-by-side turntables playing the same (or similar) record, in order to elongate rhythmic drum beats in soul and funk tracks—known as break beats—at legendary parties in the recreation room of the Bronx project he called home. Herc would punctuate these breaks with rhyming slang phrases, normally delivered through an Echoplex delay, and thus hip hop was born. We see how some of the originating icons built on the methods of others to finesse early hip hop—Grand Master Flash’s ingenious technique for identifying the precise location of break beats; Melle Mel’s use of rap to bring awareness to the social strife experienced in the woefully deprived communities of inner city America, in the timeless classic The Message; Run-DMC’s at the time startling decision to drop the instrumental samples and rap purely over beats; Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s savvy entrepreneurial strategy that turned rap into a multi-million dollar business, and took hip hop center stage with acts like LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. The final episode explores the genres infiltration into West Coast circles, and how the crack epidemic, police brutality, and rising gang warfare on the streets of LA engendered the gangsta rap that came to dominate the 90s.

There’s a thought-provoking scene in the short-lived and divisive HBO drama Vinyl, in which we see a presumed DJ Cool Herc—honing his craft by spinning funk records side by side to create break loops—maligned by the elders and their calls to ‘let the record play man!’ This perfectly illustrates the salient message of Hip Hop Evolution, that these developments were not simply step-by-step progressions on a clear-cut path, but truly imaginative innovations that exceeded against all odds. There’s also a theme here that pervades throughout Vinyl, of betting on the wrong horse—whether it be record company execs or the general public. When Hip Hop Evolution details Run DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, we’re reminded that throughout its early history, hip hop was often scoffed at as a passing fad that would never materialize into mainstream success. For a hip hop group to collaborate with a larger than life rock band was actually a huge deal at the time. What’s even more remarkable is that some twenty years on, it’s actually hip hop that is unquestionably the more dominant mainstream genre, and rock is unfortunately falling by the way side.

The Get Down

Although The Get Down was produced completely independently of Hip Hop Evolution, in many ways it serves as the perfect companion piece. This six-part Netflix-original drama, which takes its name from the slang term for those gold dust-like break beats, follows a group of teenagers as they navigate the burning Bronx of the late 1970s—struggling to steer clear of the street gangs, rising crime, and political corruption that blighted the city, while establishing a hip hop crew mighty enough to topple the throne of Grand Master Flash. Although co-creator Baz Luhrmann’s trademark style of production provides a brightly colored, comic book feel; the show weaves a captivating narrative—perfectly illuminating the key developments of the 70s hip hop scene described in Hip Hop Evolution, with a dramatic spin. We’re treated to scenes like Grandmaster Flash sending his protégé Shaolin Fantastic, on a dangerous race against The Savage Warlord street gang, to retrieve a rare copy of a record to sample (which was a huge part of gaining an edge for early DJs). We see the inside of one of DJ Cool Herc’s aforementioned parties (also depicted in Vinyl), in a hunt for a mystery bootlegger—a key feature of the dissemination of early hip hop tracks; and we get a glimpse of what life was like for kids whose playgrounds were the burnt down tenement buildings and abandoned lots around the South Bronx’s Charlotte Street.

The show does a great job of using fictional portrayals to educate viewers about key events that changed the course of hip hop, such as Grand Master Flash handing Shaolin Fantastic nothing more than a purple crayon to impart the lesson of creating break loops (see if you can figure it out). However, the standout highlight is the depiction of the 1977 New York blackout, when an electrical fault caused the entire city to lose power for an entire night and day, during a brutal July heat wave. While this event will forever be remembered as a shocking display of carnage—where mass looting and rioting saw some 1,600 stores damaged, with over 1,000 fires, leading to almost 4,000 arrests—it served as a crucial facilitator in the development of hip hop, where stolen DJ equipment tripled the number of functional hip hop crews overnight. The blackout was of course covered in Hip Hop Evolution, but gaining some perspective on what it was actually like to live through, gives the show a touch of magical realism, reminiscent of another Netflix original, Narcos, in which as a viewer you’re frequently brought to disbelief, questioning whether these seemingly bizarre events actually happened. The producers also do a great job of splicing in period footage to solidify pertinent scenes.

One of the reasons why I call New York home is its riveting history, particularly the 70s and 80s, where soaring crime rates and near-bankruptcy led parts of the city to resemble a dystopian war zone. I’ve read books on the subject, and watched myriad YouTube videos cataloging the widespread arson that leveled the Bronx in particular (where my mother grew up in the 40s and 50s), but until now I’ve had to make do with The Warriors as the closest thing to a historical portrayal of this captivating period. The Get Down fills an obvious void, and manages to tie multiple developments together such as graffiti artistry, disco music, breakdancing, and Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign, over six hour-long episodes, while maintaining a compelling story.

Time Is Illmatic

This was always going to be a winner for me. In my humblest of humble opinions, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic is the greatest rap album of all time. This record is to hip hop, what Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is to jazz, somehow managing to effectively distill the beauty of all that preceded it, while blazing a new and exciting path. The intro on the albums first musical track, NY State of Mind, still gives me chills. With its triplet swing-style rhythm on drums; the crescendo of the blues scale-derived riff played on upright bass; and the piano, peppering the bass line with an offbeat altered chord—the track lays a groove deeply rooted in jazz, that sets the scene for Nas’s hilariously self-depreciating ‘I don’t even know how to start this,’ prior to dropping one of the greatest verses in the history of rap. Spoiler alert—Time Is Illmatic ends with Nas spitting this verse to headphone monitors in the studio, contextualizing its brilliance. While I haven’t always been so opinionated on the matter, I think the fact that twenty-five years after its debut, holding the title of the only rap album that I periodically come back to time and time again, without skipping a single track, is testament to its preeminence.

Time is Illmatic (which viewers can watch via streaming on Amazon Prime) expertly intertwines Nas’s early life growing up on the streets of Queensbridge (in America’s largest public housing project) with the production of Illmatic—weaving a complex story of personal strife that sowed the seeds for a precocious 21-year-old Nas to produce this iconic masterpiece. For me, what sets the album apart from other classics is the coupling of musicality—jazz-derived rhythmic grooves that permeate through every track; with deeply poetic storytelling—a tradition firmly rooted in the country blues music of the early 20th century, of which Nas has unquestionably mastered. With this in mind, it’s particularly interesting to explore Nas’s relationship with his father, a Mississippi-born jazz musician (who actually makes a cameo playing cornet on the outro of the album’s third track), and to see an in-depth examination of the production of these tracks. I kind of see myself as a slightly better looking version of Ryan Gosling’s Seb in the film La La Land—I genuinely hold the opinion that if you don’t at least somewhat appreciate jazz and blues music, then you don’t deserve to listen to rap or rock. Thus, I feel somewhat validated by this aspect of the documentary. It also really highlights how important instrumentation is to the album, with Nas sampling jazz legends like Ahmad Jamal, in contrast to others that rely heavily on samples from very well established famous songs (*cough* Kanye *cough*). Serving as a sort of internal control, It Aint Hard to Tell, which samples Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, is probably Illmatic’s corniest track.

Other highlights include an examination of another flawless track, One Love, with words from its producer Q-Tip. Here we delve into the tragedy of a generation of young black males lost to the mounting mass incarceration that pervaded the latter half of the 20th century, and continues to this day. One Love is definitely a stand out track on the album, in which Nas’s rap takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison, exploring both the horrors faced behind bars, and the void that’s left on the streets—exemplified by the line ‘plus, congratulations, you know you got a son//I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?’ This message is arguably even more relevant now than it was then, with the industrial prison complex at an all-time high, perfectly illuminated in the recent Netflix documentary 13TH. Again there’s an interesting precedent to this, wherein early blues music would often center around the hardships of the penitentiary and the forced labor that came with it—the trials and tribulations encountered in navigating a system that’s designed to keep you down.

I think this documentary and the album itself serves as an interesting follow up to Hip Hop Evolution and The Get Down, since you’ll notice Nas’s frequent nods to the old guard (also coincidentally, Nas introduces each episode of The Get Down with a tailor-made rap). Lines like ‘A smooth criminal on beat breaks’ or ’I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat’, as well as ‘back in 83 I was an MC sparkin, but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and, kick my little raps’—are all brought to life with the knowledge of how early hip hop took shape during Nas’s childhood. At times in the album the instruments will even drop out for a couple of lines, allowing Nas to rap solely over beat breaks, merging the old with the new—an audacious feat for a 21-year-old newcomer. You might be able to tell at this point that I’m struggling to resist the urge to digress into a song by song review of Illmatic, so I’ll cap this off with words from the man himself—‘Sip the Dom P, and watch this document-ary till you’re charged.’ Ok I rejigged it a little, but you get the message.

A New Encounter on Stage: SugaGold

Alice Marino

As soon as you arrive in New York City, you immediately learn that there is not much time to get bored. We are surrounded by tons of things to do, places to explore, museums to visit, new restaurants to try, street fairs, street art, street performances, and the list goes on. This city offers such a unique variety of activities that somehow allows it to feed the needs of its huge population.

For example, I have always been a live music addict, but while getting to know the potential of this city, at some point I became more selective with my choices. I began to be intrigued by concerts which took place in smaller venues, rather than giant locations. These spots became my favorite. First of all, they are friendlier, more welcoming, and they also have better and cheaper beers. Second, seeking out these locations gives you the chance to explore the city deeper, getting to better know its neighborhoods, and appreciate its many facets. Third, in these small venues, the atmosphere gets creative and the connection between the audience and the new emerging musicians becomes special; not to mention that you’ll often be extremely surprised by the quality and level of the music. Obviously, there are many ways (web, apps, friends, magazines, etc.) to find out when and where concerts are happening, but recently I found out that the best way is to be invited by a member of the band: Guadalupe Astorga, who is a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, and also a web designer and contributor for Natural Selections. Excited and full of curiosity for the new musical adventure, a few friends and I decided to get ready to face a chilly winter night out and head to Harlem to experience the sounds of SugaGold live.

But first, let’s shed some light on this band. SugaGold is an independent rock/funk band, formed at the beginning of 2016 by the interaction of five talented minds, not only with regards to music. In fact, three of them are neuroscientists at Rockefeller University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one is a language researcher, and another is a producer and musician. This collaboration started from a mutual passion for music and from the desire to create an original and innovative instrumental mix. The incredibly powerful voice of Natalia Sáez, who also contributes with the flute and indigenous instruments, harmonizes perfectly with the sound of the drums and electronic notes of Guadalupe Astorga, the drums and percussions played by Ben Deen, the lead guitar of Martin Luque, and the bass of Rodrigo Pavão. The result is an incredible new sound, born out of the creativity of each component, and by the mix of their personal influences and backgrounds. Apparently, “mishmash” is their key word. Did you know that even their band name comes from a mixture of their beloved pets’ names, Sugar and Goldie? The name was supposed to be temporary, but over the time, they liked it and never changed it. SugaGold started to perform around New York City quite fast, considering that the band was brand new. Not bad, guys!

Pictures by Alice Marino

The concert was hosted at Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem. This is a multimedia arts and culture venue founded in 2007 by musicians and music fans. Because it is primarily a location for bands who would like to promote themselves, you can always find passionate musicians ready to face a challenge, while having fun with the audience. Since we didn’t arrive late, for once, we rewarded ourselves with a drink, sitting at the table just in front of the stage, looking at the band preparing for their show. Stage fright? Panic? Tension? What are those? SugaGold were definitely comfortable on stage, and an energetic flow of funky notes came out from the speakers, as if it were the most natural thing on earth. This formed a perfect match with Natalia’s voice, who was also alternating between the flute and the guitar throughout the whole concert. On stage, the performance was very dynamic, as different members of the band would change roles depending on the song; for example, the drummer would change roles to a percussionist, and vice versa. They have a good repertoire of pieces, both in English and Spanish, with a strong South American influence. They all virtually owned the stage, as the audience enjoyed the interesting rhythms and vibes coming from their Djembe, guitar, drums, flute, synthesizer, and bass. The quality of the acoustic was very good, despite a brief incident involving a temporarily crackling microphone. Things that happen only in a live performance! As song after song played, their time on stage began to run out, but they managed to steal a few more minutes to play one last song. Oh yes, the crowd didn’t give them a break!

When I mentioned my passion for music I truly meant this: an amazing atmosphere created by enthusiastic people gathered together to enjoy music and have a blast! The overall impression of the concert was great, from the choice of the venue to the participation of the audience. I loved the pure energy that the live music released. Their concert was a success and SugaGold have, for sure, a bunch of new fans. I can’t wait to see them again on March 17th, at Silvana in New York.

Culture Corner: Chuck Berry and the American Songbook—An Appreciation

By Bernie Langs

Chuck berryI saw Chuck Berry, the founder of the music genre of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, in concert in the midst of my life’s blur of the mid-to-late 1980s at a fairly small New York City concert venue. He was paired up that evening with Ronnie Wood, the second banana guitarist of the Rolling Stones and the man whose presence in that band had rescued it when Mick Taylor quit out of nowhere in the mid-1970s. Berry was the headliner, and as usual, he was famously late. Ronnie announced he’d play while we waited for his sparring partner, and I still remember him struggling to sing the slow Robert Johnson blues masterpiece, “Love in Vain” when suddenly he just spoke into the microphone and announced, “Okay, here’s the point.” At that time on the planetary, Euclidean grid and map of rock history’s great moments, he took his metal slide to his guitar and ripped out a monumental solo of deep emotional joy and pain, which is the signature mixture of the Blues. The Brits, of course, had rearranged and stolen the Blues methods in the 1960s from the African American players of the United States. When Berry arrived at the hall that night, he stole it back, at least for one evening.

Continue reading

The $100 Guitar Project

by Nick Didkovsky

I am honored and pleased to share with my colleagues an NPR story that recently aired about my $100 Guitar Project.

Two years ago, I bought a generic, no-name electric guitar online with a friend of mine for $100. We passed it around to over 60 players in various countries and on various coasts, asking each to compose and record an original piece with it. The resulting collection of works is released on a double CD on Bridge Records that is available now on iTunes and Amazon. A portion of the profits on each sale will be donated to the nonprofit organization CARE. Continue reading

CULTURE CORNER Book and Film Reviews: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald & Celebration Day featuring Led Zeppelin

by Bernie Langs

Source: Wikipedia

I waited impatiently for five years to view and listen to the one-time concert of the 2007 Led Zeppelin Reunion performance, and immediately bought the film the week it became available in November 2012. Celebration Day, the video of the occasion, was well worth the wait.

I would venture to say that living heroes are few and far between these days, there being a shortage of Achilles-types or gallant Mr. Darcys running around. I have a loose sense of those I admire, and my list includes former Rockefeller University President and scientist Sir Paul Nurse, who writes and speaks with wit and wisdom; Curtis Martin, a former New York Jets football player who diligently trained his body like a machine to absorb the hits he took for years as a premier running back; and Jimmy Page, because of the way he has handled the band’s legacy after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. The market hasn’t been flooded with countless Zeppelin retreads and reissues. Page and his bandmates, singer Robert Plant and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, have issued only top-notch select concert footage and very few packaged musical offerings. Because of this, Led Zeppelin remains a precious commodity. Continue reading