Friday, February 24, 2006

Box Of 45's: Herbie Hancock

I am not going to lie, this was a recent eBay purchase. Some of you might be saying "John, that's a common song by a common artist", but read me out for a moment.

I am someone who enjoys various aspects of recorded music, and one of them is the 45rpm single. For the most part, 45's are released (and I say "are" because there are a small handful of major labels who are still releasing 45's) for the sole purpose of having a hit. Look at any used 45 bin at a record convention or record store, and you will see loads of promotional 45's by certain labels. The hope was that if one of them was able to make a dent, it would be a regional hit, and maybe, just maybe, a national hit. The recording and radio industry is very different from what it was in the 70's and 80's, but it is interesting to see how much money was wasted for the sole purpose of having a hit and "making a dent".

I have also been interested in seeing 45's by artists who may not have been "radio friendly". On the opposite end of AM radio was FM radio, where things were freeform and you didn't have to conform to playing songs at four minutes or less. If you wanted to play one song at 23 minutes, you could. Walk out the backdoor of the radio station and have a smoke.

However, record labels always pushed for "just one more hit", and that mentality went everywhere from psychedelic folk bands to trippy old ladies who couldn't hold a tune (read "Mrs. Miller").

So what to make of this 45 by Herbie Hancock? Head Hunters was released in 1974 and became one of his best selling albums. The album begins with the funky "Chameleon", running at 15 minutes and a few seconds. Anyone who sits and listens to the album goes into it for the ride, the experience of the groove, knowing that it goes up and down in mood, getting hyperactive with "Sly" and mellowing the listener with "Vein Melter". However, take a different perspective of the album's first song, "Chameleon", and it's obvious that it could have been a massive hit on its own. There was a time when an instrumental out of nowhere would become a huge hit, it has happened many times over the years: "Axel F", the theme from "Miami Vice", "Chariots Of Fire", "Music Box Dancer". Herbie Hancock was at the start of his funky jazz era, and "Chameleon" was a song that once heard, you knew it by heart.

However, Columbia Records felt that it could be a hit single. What to do? Edit. This is not a Rare Earth "Get Ready" kind of deal, where you start the song after the trippy intro, and then fade before everyone does their solos, what someone did was try to take the best elements from "Chameleon" and attempt to make it hit worthy, for the radio, for jukeboxes, and for non-jazz consumption. They did so by creating an edit piece that was 2 minutes and 50 seconds, removing about 80 percent of the song's actual content.

When I read books about how record companies have tried to turn anything into a hit, stuff like this interests me. A song may be too long, so they'll tell you to trim it down by a minute or two, there was a push to get it onto radio, otherwise no one will know about you, and it will not be a hit. In this case, it is taking a 15:40 song, slicing and dicing it in the hopes it would become a hot hit. Condensed for the masses/them asses, and hoping it will make a dent.

Well, the single did not make a dent but the album sold very well and continues to do so. The B-side of the 45 was a 4 minute edit of the 9 minute "Vein Melter". The edit of "Chameleon" in retrospect is genius in itself, but the sad thing is that with more radio formats catering to music from the 70's, this song would be perfect for airplay in 2006 and unfortunately it isn't getting any.

Again, a common song for jazz and funk heads, but heard in a fashion most of us are unfamiliar with.

Herbie Hancock - Chameleon (Single Version) (3.8mb)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Thrift Store Adventures: February 18, 2006 - Hillsboro, Oregon

Have your eyes deceived you? Did I actually make it out of my immediate circle? YES!

However, this wasn't a typical trip or record buying adventure, but I was an addition to a family trip. I decided to go along and I came across a Goodwill in Hillsboro, Oregon. I have never been to this city before (have been to Portland many times and have been to Beaverton) but I wasn't sure what to expect.

I didn't buy anything there, because prices were kinda high: $1.99 for LP's and $3.99 for compact discs. Oregonians may not question these prices but I'm still paying $1 for my vinyl and $2.50 for CD's. Selection was kinda eh, and I was going to buy some original cast album on Columbia only because it was still sealed. I passed.

I did not go onto "Record Row" in Portland, and again this wasn't my typical record buying trip. I would have went into Crossroads and gone crazy, and perhasp met Dan at Jump Jump if he was there. There is always a next time.

I did, however, have the same kind of sweats I normally get during digging adventures when I visited Fry's in Wilsonville, Oregon for the first time. Fry's is an electronics department store, whose ads I have seen for months in the Seattle and Portland papers. It was great. Loads of SACD's and DVD-A's, a lot of quality computers... I'm not going to turn this into an ad but I will definitely make my way down there someday.

On my way back home, I did eat some Popeye's chicken. a 3-piece with a biscuit and some cajun rice. I haven't had Popeye's chicken in 22 years. It was good. Perhaps not a Whole Foods good but it fills the opu, which in the words of Janet Jackson, is alright with me.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Digging In The Magazine Box: NW Hip-Hop Circa 1985

I recently found a folder of clippings I cut out from various magazines. I figured I would use them in the future, and here I am. This folder featured clippings that were at least 20 years old, including stuff for concerts in venues no longer around, and bands that were once celebrated for their furry boots (Rail).

I came across an article that I forgot about, but as I looked it it reminded me of where my head was at at the time. It was May 1985, and the publication was The Rocket from Seattle. I was 14, already a music geek but wanting anything and everything that was rap. I was now a resident of the Pacific Northwest, after living in Honolulu for years. I wanted to know what was "local", and for me that meant Washington State and Oregon. I wasn't sure if Idaho would even have any hip-hop.

I then came across this article written by Glen Boyd, whose name I would often see associated with some of the best in NW hip-hop. It was part of a column The Rocket called In The Flesh, and was called The Hip-Hop Debate: The Northwest Hottest Funk DJ's Square Off. The article documents the music of two guys whom I looked up to, enough to move me to eventually create music on my own. I had done pause-mix tapes (my mixes of Art Of Noise's "Beat Box" and Yes' "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" were wicked) but the way they did it seemed much more intense. It was funky music with a bit of fun and chaos thrown in.

As a sidenote, Mr. Supreme recently told me that he drove Vitamix for the photo shoot which was used in this article. Supreme is also putting together a compilation looking into this era of Seattle hip-hop that will shed light on a music scene that may have been hidden a few times over the years, but not for long.

(Photos by Pete Kuhns)

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Seattle' Sir Mix-A-Lot and Baron Von Scratch and Portland's VitaMix represent the orthwest's two opposing sides, in what has become the Great Debate of hip hop.

Although Anthony "Sir MixALot" Ray has done scattered gigs at Club Broadway, the Exhibition Hall (with rappers Jam Delight), and most recently at the Mountaineers, he has spent most of his time sequestered in his small Rainier Beach apartment, with a private arsenal of synthesizers, computers and turntables.

"I come up with stuff as good, from a musician's standpoint, as anything by Hashim or Dr. Dre," MixALot boasts, "and I do it right here in this room."

The results justify the boast. Mix-A-Lot originals like "My Kick Ass Drum" and "Sir MixALot Vs. the Dead Beat" are veritable funk monsters, combining the mechanized beats of early Bambaataa with melodies falling somewhere between Arthur Baker and Gary Numan. The clincher is the evilest sounding rap this side of the Egyptian Lover. MixALot's music, composed on his digital drum machine, Korg and Moog synthesizers and Commodore 64 computer, has produced such word of mouth that his tapes are sought-after commodities and his parties strictly SRO. His originals have landed airplay on K-FOX's Sunday hip hop show, Fresh Tracks. MixALot even composed the show's intro.

In his raps, Sir MixALot openly challenges Seattle's sucker DJs to battle. In one such battle, he and monster mixer Baron Von Scratch employed five turntables to crush the reputedly hot Rainier Valley crew, K.O.C. (Kings of Cutting). "We prefer the private parties 'cause you have too many rules as a club DJ," MixALot explains. "I can be a one man band with my synthesizers while Baron just does all those crazy things with the records."

Indeed, Baron Von Scratch's "Mega Mix III" and "Roxanne's Re-Mix" are marvels of speed scratching. Combined with MixALot's funk technology, the two of them hope to raise Seattle "out of the mud," and onto the hip hop map, thus far dominated by Tacoma DJs.

But not if Portland's VitaMix has anything to say about it.

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VitaMix's Seattle reputation has thus far consisted of word of mouth created by the few tapes filtered to local hip hop circles, and a couple of favorable reviews in The Rocket.

But in Portland, Chris "VitaMix" Blanchard is revered as the undisputed Mix Master and Rapper Supreme, and he pulls no punches in his appraisal of the synthesized funk embraced by Sir MixALot.

"The West Coast sound sucks," he says. "The old East Coast records are the all-time best, Spoonie Gee and the Sugar hill Gang had a band behind them. There's no street feel to it anymore, just all these synthesizers. Wellanyone can spend $4000 on synthesizers and be the best DJ in town. But where's the talent? I'm for rawness, this is supposed to be street music."

It is those original early eighties rap records, on labels like Sugarhill that VitaMix developed his skills on, first in his native San Francisco, then on Portland's KBOO FM.

"KBOO is a public service station," VitaMix explains, "and was very freeform in ' 82, which gave me a lot of freedom. I mixed hardcore punk and R&B in the beginning. The first record I ever scratched was Laurie Anderson's '0 Superman. I discovered mixing by playing Grandmaster's 'The Message' and this record called 'Frog Sound in North America' simultaneously."

VitaMix's radio show soon led to a demand for tapes. In fact, much of VitaMix '84 consists of mixes from the show, interspersed with phone-in rappers from the same program. The centerpiece of VilaMix '84, however, is "VitaRap '66" the title comes from Blanchard's year of birth, and features Vita's scratching, beat box, and autobiographical rap.

On VitaMix's new tape, Cut Classics, he breaks new ground by mixing the melody tracks of classic pop records with the beats of hip hop. The results range from a "Purple Hazel Art of Noise" mix to Booker T'g "Green Onions" mixed with Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" to an absolutely wild marriage of square dance music to scratch.

Since leaving KBOO early in '84, VitaMix has remained visible, opening dates for artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Yellowman, and the infamous Afrika Bambaataa fiasco in Seattle.

"We cut it up at that show," VitaMix said. "Bambaataa was told he'd get a band. When he didn't, he still cut a few records, but the turntables were bad so he just bowed out. I don't blame him. Pretty soon another guy from the audience came up and started trying to cut records."

VitaMix's greatest triumph to date was the summer '84 engineering of a breakdance competition to coincide with the grand opening of Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. The event drew 8,000 people and garnered considerable media coverage. VltaMix put together the event, "although KMJK radio took the credit," and provided the master mixing.

"Everyone else is trying to do it now, but I was first," VitaMix insists. "MixALot has all the equipment, but let's get people back into it. Forget the machines."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Box Of 45's: Stretch

Back when I did the U-WU (the Unofficial Wu-Tang Clan Mailing List), I had a section called MP3 Of The Week, and I was doing it long before everyone else put up MP3's on their site as a regular practice. I continued to do it when I put up my own website, and it was one of the more popular sections.

As a longtime record collector, I grew up listening to 45's. There is someone of a mystique about it, whether it's the fact that some artists had enough money to record and press up one record, only to never be heard from again. Soul and funk collectors know exactly what I'm talking about, and finding these records isn't only about looking for popular drum breaks or samples, but to be able to hear a hint of the magic and anticipating the artists had at the time of the recording.

Other times, it's merely looking for something new and different, on a format that was tossed off and abused over the years. 45's are great, and thus I bring to my blog my Box Of 45's, in MP3 form.

As a producer, I too look for weird and unusual samples, as well as breaks of interest. However, I'm someone who loves to hear music that may be unknown. This record was no exception, a record on a label by a band that was unknown to me. I brought it home and it was kinda funky to me, a nice groove. All of a sudden the song breaks down for a quick moment and I'm thinking to myself "why does this sound familiar?" I knew I heard it, and then the singer mentions two numbers. OH SNAP!

I personally like it when well known samples fall into my lap, it's as if these records are saying "come to me". In truth, it's those accidental discoveries that make record hunting so great.

Stretch-"Why Did You Do It?" (4.7 mb)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Digging In The Magazine Box: Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em

Digging In The Magazine Box is where I look through some of my old magazines to find interviews, articles, and reviews of interest. This time I look into the May 1990 issue of Spin to find a review of MC Hammer's brand new album, Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em:

MC Hammer
Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em

After first hearing MC Hammer's de­ but, Let's Get It Started, I filed it away, thinking, "Just another sucker MC who can't rap." Then Hammer blew up: his videos were kickin', his tightly choreographed stage show was live, his production company, Bustin' Records, busted out by discovering and produc­ing Oaktown's 3.5.7 among others. Started rocked over two million ear­drums, and he landed a cameo on Earth, Wind & Fire's album Heritage. All that noise and Hammer's new album made me reassess this Oakland rapper: he's no small-time sucker, but he still can't rap.

Which isn't a knock against Hammer. Somewhere along the line he must've realized that his verbal prowess isn't on par with his physical fitness. "Here Comes the Hammer" and "U Can't Touch This" Hammer's voice is mostly muffled, his words barely distinguishable, his rhymes irrelevant: the thrill of listening to them is left to the imagination - how would Hammer and his posse interpret their slammin' beats on­stage? Probably better than Hammer interprets Michael Jackson's "Dancing Machine" and Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me"-two songs Hammer doesn't sample, but interpolates. Interpolates? Yup. Hammer cold-cops the music tracks from these don't-touch-it­if-you're-not-gonna-hurt-it tunes, revamps the background singing and adds some rhymes of his own.

"On Your Face" (EW&F) and "Have You Seen Her" (Chi-Lites) are less interpolations than covers. Hip hop covers of R&B songs? Yup. Here Hammer reveals what's perhaps a secret longing-to be a singer, not a rapper. Or better, to be an entertainer. At this rate, if hip hop hits Las Vegas 15, 20 years from now, Hammer, with his business savvy and Oaktown posse, will be there rapping "My Way."

-Ben Mapp

MY COMMENT: Almost 16 years after this review, we can look back at what has happened to hip-hop. Are we in the Las Vegas phase right now? Did this album really pave the way for everything that has happened since then?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Thrift Store Adventures/8's From The 808

My Thrift Store Adventures have returned, and again we remain in the same ol' place. In this case, it's the Richland, Washington Goodwill.

When my website was running, I had a small section called 8'S From The 808, dedicated to 8-track tapes of Hawaiian music, with 808 referring to the area code of Hawai'i. As a Hawaiian originally from Hawai'i, I am very passionate about my music. I decided that I wanted to archive Hawaiian music as it was released in what is still considered the stepchild of music formats. I am, fortunately, a fan and supporter of the 8-track tape, in fact I released my 8th album on the format and called it The Big KA-CHONGK!

Anyway, my gallery featured 8-tracks I had discovered, along with contributions from other trackers who had come across their own tapes. Today at Goodwill I found a tape I could not and would not resist.

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Don Ho
Hawai'i's Greatest Hits
(Reprise M 86418)

Don Ho, for most people, had peaked with "Tiny Bubbles", but Ho was still the musical ambassador to the Hawaiian islands, and this was his way of performing some modern Hawaiian standards. I was lucky to score this with the original Warner Bros. box.

I also found a blank Scotch 80-minute 8-track.

As far as vinyl, there was a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull but I passed on it (although since I have one, I could've had doubles and perhaps participated in a Richard Harris routine of some sort).

Cost of 8-tracks: 25 cents each.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Post #1: Aloha hoa'aloha!!!

Well, with my website down I still feel a need to blab on. This will be the place to do it. Welcome to JB's Music. I am John Book and I guess when it comes to dipping into my record collection, talking about my Thrift Store Adventures, or letting you all know about where some of my reviews can be found, you can find it here.

This is just an introduction, but I'll get things started fairly quickly. Spread the word.