If you never delved too deep into the catalog of music that was produced out of Muscle Shoals in the ’60s and ’70s, Candi Staton might never have appeared on your radar. To be sure, what did come out of Muscle Shoals instantly became canon and would be tough for anyone to break through and reach the same atmosphere: “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge, “Slip Away” by Clarence Carter, “Wild Horses” by the Stones, “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You” by Aretha (Fame Studios is where Aretha became Aretha), The Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Staton was the Diana Ross of the Muscle Shoals roster—silky, sultry, powerful and loaded with presence. “He Called Me Baby” is one of Staton’s masterworks, a deep cut that deserves the reverence that a song like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” has. The music is powered by a guitar, bass, and horns that rivals the best of what came out of Stax and Chess Records studios. The music is night-driving music. In a bar alone examining your life but it feels cinematic music. Introverted and alone on the couch at night when you’re sad but you also want some groove too music. Something that makes you think of slow dancing but you don’t have a partner music. This is one of the best R&B songs of the ’70s, a decade that is overloaded with great singles. If you want to delve further into the Muscle Shoals sound, this song is an excellent first step.
Cornershop scored a cult hit here in the States in 1997 with “Brimful of Asha,” a brilliant and catchy little number that meshed the band’s Middle Eastern flavor of Britpop and electronic music. “Brimful of Asha” is the second track on When I Was Born for the 7th Time and it is legitimately terrific; that guitar hook is as catchy today as it was twenty years ago. It is the opening track, “Sleep on the Left Side,” though, that is the crown jewel of the album. It’s starts with a brief accordion played in a French melody before shifting to a bass-heavy beat that is mellow, to the point of sounding like the auditory equivalent of dispensary quality weed. But weed analogies aside, “Sleep on the Left Side” is a jaw-dropping track that mixes psychedelia with modern production polish. Samples of flutes whir by airily and keyboards sound like they’ve been played backward in such a way that the song sounds newer while also capturing the essence of the late ’60s. This song, with its creative textures and dreamlike lyrics, could have appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s. I can absolutely imagine Lennon or Harrison singing “Sleep on the left side/Leave the right side free/Hope gets salted/As those around you leave.” Some people may hear this track as an oddity not worth revisiting, but to me this is music joy. One of the best songs from the ’90s that you probably have never heard.
The late ’80s represented an interesting fork in the road for rap music, as it had firmly (and finally) made its way from the Bronx to Manhattan largely because of Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa. Up to this point there were primarily two schools of thought as far as the music went: go the Def Jam route and seek some levels of authenticity, or go the have-fun-and-party-all-night pop style of music—both of which had braggadocio as a connective tissue. To be clear, this happens to pretty much every genre of music over the last 100 years: the music begins as a creative output, then it gets molded into something entertaining, then it becomes about sex and women and love, then it gets serious, and then the circle repeats again. Rap was becoming a more serious art form and artists were now seeing producing an album as a longform statement (previous to this, doing shows was more preferable than recording an album). By 1987, rap was starting to grow into real poetry and journalism set to music and the two giants of this movement were Public Enemy, and Eric B. & Rakim.
Whereas Chuck D’s voice was unrivaled in its authority and professorial knowledge, Rakim fills in every other gap. He has a voice that cuts through the bullshit. He sounds wiser beyond his years. He modeled his vocal delivery and cadence in a way that was influenced by Coltrane’s syncopation. He was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. You add all of this together with Eric B.’s DJ skills and Marley Marl’s production wizardry (Marl cracked the code with the 808 drum machine that indescribably changed hip hop’s sound) and the debut album Paid in Full became an instant landmark album. The title track is raw and catchy, and even though Rakim doesn’t rap for the full track, his presence and voice is simply powerful and demands one’s attention. It is fitting that Rakim’s influences come from jazz, as it and hip hop are the two genres that are distinctly American—the two genres that were made here, that changed our culture wholesale, and spread throughout the world like wildfire. Every artistic movement requires an artist to reflect a reality in such a way that it cuts across race and class lines, and Rakim helped craft hip hop into a sound and style that people far removed from the streets could understand. He helped shape language, as icons have the power to do.
When Ice-T released “6 in the Mornin'” in 1986 as a B-side, it began the slow turn in the West Coast scene from disco- and techno-inspired and disco-looking hip hop to an entirely new genre, gangsta rap. “6 in the Mornin'” begat N.W.A. and the rest is pretty much history. What you may not know is what begat “6 in the Mornin'” and the answer is “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” by Schoolly D which was released a year prior, and came from the far-removed-from-California part of the world known as Philadelphia.
Ice-T openly borrowed Schoolly D’s cadence and vocal rhythm from “P.S.K.” to make “6 in the Mornin'”; he’s admitted as much in interviews over the years since. Schoolly D laid the blueprint down for how to write and rap about the streets and its drug dealers and gang leaders, but more importantly he created a sound on “P.S.K.” that was so ahead of its time that it seems utterly commonplace now. One can listen to this song now and it will sound like it’s about thirty years old, yet at the same time it still sounds unique. The record scratching, the drum beats, and the cymbals: they all sound almost… psychedelic. It definitely sounds street in a similar way to how Run-D.M.C. stripped down their sound, but also if you listen to this song loud enough you might feel kinda stoned (even if you’re not) in much the same way Pink Floyd’s “Pow R Toc H” or Eno’s “Blank Frank” can. Dust music is what Ice-T or Russell Simmons once referred to it as. If you heard “P.S.K.” back in 1985 you would be able to see what hip hop’s tea leaves were saying and pointing to. You probably would’ve never guessed that it would ultimately point to Los Angeles, but hip hop, like all great art, thrives on social commentary and reporting regardless of how it is fashioned. A track like “P.S.K.” took regional storytelling (it’s about the Park Side Killers in Philly) that could be applied to the entire U.S.—especially cities, where the police, and the policies that guide them, are often acting on purely racist impulses. This is a groundbreaking song that helped further mold the last musical genre our country has created.
Hip hop was born out of a creative desire to take soul and funk and package it into something new, namely by expanding break beats from tracks like “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band. When rapping began to gather influential steam the look and feel of the artists was still grounded in funk and even disco. The genius of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin was to strip everything down to hard beats, put the focus on the rappers, and have the rappers look more authentically street; Run-D.M.C. was his proxy for this new mission statement and it changed the game for the hip hop/rap genre in a way that is analogous to how The Beatles changed pop music. Raising Hell was the fountainhead of mainstream rap and, while the collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” is the axis of the album for many people, it’s the opening track “Peter Piper” that best encapsulates the genius of the group, and of Def Jam’s philosophy. Starting with a back-and-forth that epitomizes ’80s rap, the track deftly shifts into a big beat surrounded by chimes, a sampled organ, and some scratches. Scores of white kids bought this album for “Walk This Way” but “Peter Piper” is the track that advanced the genre separate from white acceptance.
[In which the court is now in session…]
Pigmeat Markham (born Dewey Markham) was a comedian and singer on the chitlin circuit in the segregated entertainment days. One of his characters was a judge that brought a street persona and slang to the scripted stuffiness of a courtroom. Sammy Davis, Jr. caught wind of the act and used the phrase “here come the judge” on an episode of Laugh-In and it went over so well that Markham was invited for multiple cameos to do the schtick himself. Pigmeat Markham also helped set the foundation for what would become rap a little over a decade later. “Here Comes the Judge” was released in 1968 and his cadence, flow, and humor—all set to legitimately funky music—would become the blueprint for the first big name rappers in and around the Bronx in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Hip hop started out as break beats and party music that paid homage to early ’70s funk like the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” and Baby Huey. Initially, MC’s at a hip hop party just broke in and spoke like DJs or Don Cornelius from Soul Train. It was primarily about the music and stretching those break beats like Kool Herc pioneered early on. When artists started rapping alongside the music, whether they knew it or not, they were emulating Pigmeat almost directly. Doc Hollywood, one of the first rappers to make a big name, specifically cites Markham as a direct influence with a voice and style he tried specifically to emulate. Even now, almost 50 years later it is impossible to listen to this track and not hear the roots of rap and hip hop.
Hear ye, hear ye, the court of swing
Is just about ready to do that thing
I don’t want no tears, I don’t want no lies
Above all, I don’t want no alibis
This judge is hip, and that ain’t all
He’ll give you time if you’re big or small
Fall in line, a-this court is neat
This is the first verse before the music kicks in. You can hear just about every early- and mid-’80s rapper in there. Even without having heard the song you can read these lyrics and pretty much know how the flow should go in reading them. And if you think it is weird that a comedian’s album that made it to Laugh-In became a root source for the last original musical genre that America has produced, it actually makes perfect sense as the early hip hop pioneers were constantly plumbing the catalogs of the previous ten years’ worth of soul and funk. As in rock music, the ’60s and ’70s are a gigantic magnet that pulled hip hop artists in for creative influence (even the gangsta rap of the ’90s kept going back to the wells of P-Funk and the Isleys for samples and ideas). “Here Comes the Judge” has aged remarkably well, a testament to its loose genius and forward-facing sound. This is one of the most influential songs in the history of modern American music.
Simply put, there would be no rock n’ roll as we know it without Chuck Berry. Or to put it another way: rock n’ roll’s birth either would’ve been prolonged another couple decades, or its sound would’ve been dramatically different. Berry set the tone for how a guitar should sound and he laid the blueprint for rock’s lyrical structure and its shorthand that spoke directly to a young generation hungry for anything new and expansive. As Cub Koda once wrote, Elvis changed the imagery of rock but Berry created its heart and soul. Because Berry casts such a huge shadow on rock, it is easy to forget that he does have some overlooked gems—one of which is “Blues For Hawaiians,” in which his guitar is tuned to sound like a sleepy electric ukulele. It’s an instrumental track that is dreamlike and mellow as you’ll ever hear; mood music that would sound perfect coming out of any jukebox or car stereo, and music that can act as a bridge to anything on a playlist because it’s Chuck Berry and Chuck Berry goes with damn near everything.
[Editor’s note: below is the full playlist of hour three.]