My friend Dave Tompkins recently published his first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. The book is a remarkable history of the vocoder, from its invention to its use in WWII to its infiltration of modern music and every remarkable place it has popped up in between.
Dave, who has written for the Wire, the Village Voice and Big Daddy (for whom he wrote a definitive piece on Paul C), tends to pack paragraphs with facts, anecdotes, esoteric trivia, oddball references and jokes until they reach nuclear density. The vocoder, with its previously uncharted connections to apparently, well, everything, is an ideal subject for him. He spent nearly a decade tracking and distilling every trace of the vocoder into a book that's a fascinating history, a flood of funny tangents and really readable.
To promote the book, Dave just let loose a new mix that he put together with assistance from Monk One. It encompasses huge swaths of vocoder music, from electro to ambient to synth-pop, as well as some vocoder ephemera and cameos from vocoder cousins (I see you, talk box and Sonovox!), but it flows smoothly between bookending snatches of Neil Young. You might catch up if you follow the beaches he wrecks [insert BP joke here].
There is a link for the mix and a complete track listing with liner notes here. If you want to skip ahead to streaming or downloading, click here.
Dave also catches a shout in a mix I've been meaning to recommend, Chairman Mao's April outing for Spine Magazine (which, d'oh!, just disappeared from Spine's front page into the ether). If I can get Mao's permission, I'd love to repost the mix here because it's a terrific selection of breezy disco, 80s R&B, proto-house and vocoder jams that's beautifully mixed and concludes by recommending How to Wreck a Nice Beach to those of his listeners "who possess the ability to read". I echo that recommendation whole-heartedly.
Here's the instrumental version of one of the tracks featured in Mao's mix. The vocal version is actually a lot more entertaining but on that the vocoder kind of takes a back seat to the Fly Guy's ad-libs.
Ramsey 2C-3D: "Fly Guy" (Instrumental) (Tears of Fire, 1982)
Not long after the Sandpebbles release, Calla used the same backing track for a single by Johnny Thunder. (No relation to the Dolls guitarist, although both probably took their names from the D.C. Comics character.) Thunder was a one-time member of the Drifters who had had a hit in 1962 with "Loop De Loop", also written by Teddy Vann.
Thunder retains the chorus but otherwise takes the lyric and vocal towards Edward "Apple" Nelson territory. The equally great flip is a faithful version of Tommy James & the Shondells' "I'm Alive".
Over the past year, I've watched Lil B's hype snowball and kinda reserved judgment.
Lil B was one fourth of Berkeley's the Pack, who had a modest hit with the goofy and addictive "Vans" back in 2006. They released a great major-label EP, Skateboards 2 Scrapers, and a lesser full-length. After that flopped, the group was a lot less visible, although their sound and style were a big inspiration for the jerk movement that blew up in 2009.
In mid-2008, Lil B began scattering hundreds of hastily-recorded solo tracks across dozens of numbered Myspace pages. Although these Myspace songs were all over digitaldripped since late 2008, I don't think anyone in the tastemaker media took notice until Noz began writing about him in April 2009. Since then B's buzz has grown steadily to the point where Soulja Boy took notice and took him on as a protege.
I would really like to ride for Lil B. Although I can't say I ever listened to them so I could hear good rapping, I was a fan of the Pack. Also, I like to see locals do interesting things and do well and, at least as described by Noz, I like the idea of Lil B.
Actually listening to his music is another matter. Although plenty of people have criticized his recordings for being lo-fi or sounding tossed-off, you can't really do that because they so clearly flaunt those attributes. Instead, what I'm struck by is how boring and oppressive they are-- listening to the songs, I feel like I'm trapped at a party with somebody wasted who just discovered some big life lessons about individuality and self-expression that everyone else figured out at 13 and who won't let me escape until he repeats all of them about 47 times.
Of the several dozen Lil B tracks I've attempted to listen to, there is not one that I've wanted to hear twice. I still sporadically try to find something I appreciate in it but am thinking his music just might not be for me. Or it might just suck.
Last week I was ripping the one record and thought of the other.
Then it occurred to me that I need to create a section in my record filing system for ballads dressed up with recitations that are meant to sound profound but are profoundly inane and probably better for it.
"Eazy Street" is a song that was buried on the soundtrack of the little-seen 1990 film, The Return of Superfly. (Having seen it in the theater, I can say that the great numbers of people who chose not to attend screenings of the film were wiser than me.) "Eazy Street" is also my favorite Eazy-E song, with one of Dr. Dre's rawest beats and the best scat solo in all of rap music.
The 12" features both the album version and a version simply labeled "remix", which was evidently someone's attempt to make the song radio playable by applying lots of delay and cutting 70% of the lyrics and ad-libs. Granted, Eazy is potty-mouthed, but where most radio edits will deftly slice out or mask a phrase here and there, the approach here is surgery by chainsaw-- a handful of words will be followed by 20 or thirty seconds of silence. The result sounds more like a dub version than a radio edit.
In case you want to follow along at home, I've placed a transcription of the edited lyrics below. Because blogger does not enable me to use strikethrough, I simply bolded lyrics that are left intact in the radio edit and italicized those that aren't.
Now I'ma break it down and tell a story about an***ain the wrong territory Sharon and Shaun is who he had to meet he made a right turn down the wrong street now whatta whatta whatta whatta pity a new jackin my muthafuckin' city
Compton that is baseheads n***az pimpin' gangsta limpin'
But back back to the nitty gritty bout this n***a slippin' in my fuckin' city by the time that he realized that he fucked up the stupid muthafucka got a foot in his ass
now this is how the story goes don't you ever bring your ass in my neighborhood fuckin' my hoes cause they my hoes and I knows when they've been fucked with
now let’s get the story about thebitches and tell how this kid went from rags to riches now he's drivin' fancy cars gettin'bitchesgalore he was a dirty little boy that I knew next door
Mac-A-muthafuckin'-Roni the one and only my dick’s to hard to be lonely
Now this muthafucka braggin' on how he got all this and that and he got all these bitches callin' him Big Daddy Pat ain't that a bitch how this muthafucka get rich on my muthafuckin' street? that’s supposed to be my god damn money and this bastard used to wear platform shoes, plaid pants and nappy ass hair under a fucked up hat now let’s kick the story about that
When the sun falls and the shit boils down some weird people start comin' around knockin' at the door sayin' we want more and mom’s wonderin' whatthe fuckthey here for rock cocaine yea just as I figured but he can do that cause he's that n***a from Eazy Street on the road to riches money, cars, houses, and hoes that’s how the story goes and if the n***a stays up you know he can't be beat all this shit happens on Eazy Street
Now back tothe story about the bitches About the what? The bitches, the bitches, the bitches yo the bitches that wanna get with me the E, the A, the Z, the Y, the E so what’s up bitch you wanna play yo why don't you kiss what’s behind the button display my dick gets Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigher
Like Ballpark Franks baby plump when you cook 'em you know what I mean my dick gets Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigher
Higher than a muthafucka Shit, that’s sho nuff funky right there yo E, kick some knowledge man explain to 'em what you mean
Uh oh day day dum day come on baby won't yasuck it this way aaaaah ooooh Shit don't find the feeling baby let it all hang out
I feel it comin' (I feel it comin') it's comin' out (it's comin' out) Kick it one more time
Uh oh day day dum day come on baby won't yasuck it this way aaaaah ooooh (I like that, I like that shit)
Uh oh day day dum day come on baby won't yasuck it this way aaaaah ooooh oh yeah E give me a solo
[*scatting*] You know and all that shit happenshere on Eazy Street you stupid muthafucka!
Incidentally, years later Ruthless prepared another edited version of the song for Eternal E - Gangsta Memorial Edition that leaves most of the verses intact. It is much less funny to listen to.
"At the Hotel" is a perfect soul tune: strange, haunting and completely unique. I would probably be won over just by the atmospheric, lo-fi backing, but the lyric and vocal take it to a whole other level.
Eunice Collins struggles to turn a two-minute brother into a sixty-minute man as a male chorus sings "At the hotel/Getting more tail/Treating me like/I'm for sale". Her tone is patient and gentle, if a bit weary: "Would you mind if I demonstrated?/I don't want to be left here all frustrated/Sit down, baby, and light a cigarette/I want to have you at your very best".
The lyrics draw a picture that's bizarre, but so vivid: "don't handle me like a flat tire/I wasn't one that you got for hire". My only disappointment is that every time I hear the "I'm here out of love and affection" line, I halfway hope they're going to rhyme it with "erection". I'm sure it couldn't have hurt whatever chance the song had for Chicago airplay.
On the other side is an instrumental version that's the pretext for this post. It's pretty great in its own right.
Eunice Collins: "At the Hotel" (Instrumental) (Mod-Art, 1974)
To paraphrase the friend who introduced me to this record, the guy playing it seems to have a pretty good idea for his solo, but none of the chops to execute it. You hear him flail and flail.
Please note: In yesterday's post, I expressed some people-in-glass-houses-style reservations when criticizing someone's scratching, but here I have none. You see, in second grade I had to learn to play Yoko Ono's "Who Has Seen the Wind?" on recorder and I really rocked that shit.
As a person with limited scratching ability, I'm not one to talk much about other people's scratching, but this record deserves special mention-- the club version of T-Ski Valley's "The U.S.A. Is the Best" contains what is perhaps the worst scratch solo in recorded music.
T-Ski Valley is best known for "Catch the Beat", his classic 1981 reworking of Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat". "Catch the Beat"'s arranger, Glen Adams, also produced "The U.S.A. Is the Best". Adams was a former keyboardist of Lee Perry's Upsetters who had relocated to the US and cut the minor disco classic "Just a Groove" (which, incidentally, was later versioned pretty well by T-Ski Valley).
The rhyming on the A-side of "The U.S.A. Is the Best" is a stiff and goofy rehash of some current events (the assassination attempt on John Paul II, the Beirut bombing, etc.) with a side of Reagan-era patriotism. The flip is billed as a "club version" but instead it's a dub-- all slinky bass, chorus chants and masterfully naive scratching.
The scratching appears intermittently throughout the club version but really starts to shine around the 6:30 mark, as someone slowly pushes a record back and forth without much regard for the beat and with none for the fader. Echo effects make it even trippier. The overall effect is not altogether bad, just weird and strangely engrossing.