Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Eric B. & Rakim - Don't Sweat The Technique (1992)

They never had a mainstream hit of their own, but during rap's so-called golden age in the late '80s, Eric B. & Rakim were almost universally recognized as the premier DJ/MC team in all of hip-hop. Not only was their chemistry superb, but individually, each represented the absolute state of the art in their respective skills. Eric B. was a hugely influential DJ and beatmaker whose taste for hard-hitting James Brown samples touched off a stampede through the Godfather of Soul's back catalogue that continues up to the present day. Rakim, meanwhile, still tops fan polls as the greatest MC of all time. He crafted his rhymes like poetry, filling his lines with elaborate metaphors and complex internal rhymes, and he played with the beat like a jazzman, earning a reputation as the smoothest-flowing MC ever to pick up a mic.
Don't Sweat the Technique was their fourth album, released on MCA Records. Recorded and produced by them at The Hit Factory in New York City, the album would be the duo's last album together. It came out June 23, 1992, two years after Let The Rhythm Hit'em, and one year after the unofficial end of hip hop's so-called Golden Age. It's not mentioned as often as their other three albums, but don't let that fool you - it is a classic.
The album builds on the sounds of 1990's Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em, with Rakim sounding more aggressive on Eric B.'s jazzy, soulful production. The title track was a minor radio hit. Casualties of War was also released as a single and contains some of Rakim's most political lyrics. Know the Ledge first appeared in the film Juice under the title Juice (Know the Ledge). The album charted at no.22 on the US Billboard 200 and was well-received by music critics upon its release.
The album received positive reviews from music critics upon its release. The Source gave it a four out of five mic rating and praised Rakim's lyricism. Havelock Nelson of Rolling Stone gave it four out of five stars and stated "Eric B.'s tracks are mellow and mean, while Rakim's lyrics are at once eloquent and threatening". Nelson wrote that the duo "expound further on the funky-fresh aesthetic" with Don't Sweat the Technique, adding that it "activates the mind -  it's erotic, playful, violent, dramatic, funky, jazzy and definitely dope". 
Musician magazine stated similarly, "What keeps this duo dynamic is that they understand the importance of sticking with the basics hard beats, sly samples and imaginative cadences - and foregoing fashion."
while. Boston Herald writer J.R. gave the album an A- rating and complimented Eric B.'s "diverse mix of beats and melodies  from hard funk to more subdued blues and jazz", concluding that "The potent combination of articulate raps and catchy beats makes 'Don't Sweat' a real burner". 
But instead of taking what an overly-verbose music critic thinks of the album, here's what RAKIM once said about it in the Source:

"I always go left. I wasn't looking for the familiar track sound. I was looking for classic [...] I did some things on there that I knew would never get played on the radio and I didn't care, but I knew that my dogs and my true listeners is gonna throw it in the walkman, in the truck, and zone out on it. That's what I like doing man and maybe that's why I'm still here 'cause people know I go the extra yard to try and get them to listen.
It's my rhymes, sometimes you might not get that @#%$ the first time. Play that [...] the next time you might not get it but after a while you start pickin' up like oh okay I see what he did."
What else can you say about arguably the best and most influential duo that hip-hop has ever witnessed?

Big Daddy Kane - Nuff Respect (1992)

This album signalled a return to form for Kane after two releases that were almost universally panned by fans and critics alike. Too much like Barry White? Too soft? Sold out? Big Daddy had something for that ass here - with a mixture of production from himself, long time collaborators Easy Mo Bee, Large Professor, Public Enemy's Bomb Squad and the oft-criticised TrakMasterz (who brought some real heat to the table) supporting him as he turned in his hungriest microphone performance in years.
From the return-of-the-champion feel of the title track, to the mocking of wack emcees on How U Get A Record Deal?, to the rugged and raw The Beef Is On, it seemed that Kane had taken all the criticism on board and came out swinging. Of course he still couldn’t resist a quick dash back into ladies’ terrority, but even here, the well-produced Very Special (Kane's first Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hit) saw him share mic time with Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa and produce a chemistry and ultimately an end result that was different from all those ‘soft’ tracks on earlier albums.
My personal fave of the album, 'Nuff Respect is a treat for the ears; old-school lyricism don't get much better than this. No wonder so many rappers (such as Eminem) cite him as an influence on their technique.

LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)

"Don't call it a comeback!" L.L. Cool J shouted at the start of Mama Said Knock You Out. For all his bravado, after the critically disappointing Walking with a Panther in 1989, L.L. was sorely in need of a career boost. As he rapped on Cheesy Rat Blues, his self-mocking tale of woe, "I wanna fall off, but I don't know where the edge is/I'm so hungry, I eat my neighbour's hedges." The  22year-old got new life on his fourth record by hooking up with legendary New York DJ Marley Marl (producer of tracks for Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace), who produced a radio-ready hip-hop masterpiece - not just spare, muscular beats or self-conscious samplefests, but a smooth blend of borrowed licks with real instruments and vocals. When you played the album in your car, it had so much propulsion, it started the ignition and rolled down the windows all by itself.
L.L. had a lot on his mind; his stature in the rap community, insults to be avenged, life in Queens, the power of God. But what he rapped about on most of the fourteen tracks here was women, particularly the homegirls with bamboo earrings he praised on Around the Way Girl. L.L. portrayed himself as a good-natured Lothario; he had enough confidence to assume that all women would want to sleep with him and enough perspective to laugh when they turned him down. On rap after rap, he stretched metaphors for sex as far as they could possibly go -- and sometimes beyond, as on Milky Cereal, where he crammed more Kellogg's trademarks into a single song than you would think possible. But Illegal Search was brilliant: L.L. took the indignities of racial profiling and effortlessly flipped them into the efforts of seduction.
Mama uses samples from James Brown's ubiquitous Funky Drummer, the Chicago Gangsters' Gangster Boogie, Sly & The Family Stone's Trip to Your Heart and Sing a Simple Song, and his own track, Rock The Bells.
The single reached number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified gold by the RIAA. LL Cool J won Best Rap Solo Performance at the '92 Grammy Awards.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Amy Winehouse 1983-2011

I deliberately waited until some of the hoo-haa subsided until I posted Amy Winehouse tracks on FVS; I had at least one track (Take The Box) queued, but of course her untimely demise changed all that.
I'm also not gonna go on about her addictions and how they got the best of her, or the irony that they may have pushed her to greater heights creatively, but you don't need little ol' me to tell you a great talent has been lost.
She was credited as an influence in the resurgence in popularity of female musicians and Soul music, and also for revitalising British music. Her distinctive style made her a muse for fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld.
Perversely, as her life became more complex, her success increased. She won the 2007 Brit award for best female artist, and Ivor Novello awards for Rehab and Love Is a Losing Game. In addition, she picked up Q magazine's best album trophy, and was nominated for that year's Mercury prize.
During the chaotic last years of her life, she was frequently compared to other singers with tempestuous existences, such as Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.
Whatever erroneous comparisons can be made about their personal lives, like those two, she sang from the heart.

Amy Winehouse - Take the Box (2004)

Co-written and produced by Amy Winehouse and Luke Smith (Keyboardist/Producer) for her debut album in 2003, Frank. Released as the album's second single on 12 January 2004, it was the highest-charting single from that album, peaking at no. 57 on the UK Singles Chart. The line "Frank's in there and I don't care", refers to her dog of that time of the same name. The album was also named after him.
The single for Take the Box features an exclusive B-side, titled Round Midnight. The song's content covers Winehouse as she leaves her lover after discovering he is having an affair. The song details her acceptance of the fact that its over as she tells the lover to literally "take the box" of stuff he left.
Frank is an overlooked gem and I couldn't stop playing this at the time; I had a feeling she was heading for bigger things, but with a sound aimed at the Katie Melua audience. Rehab changed all of that, and her, forever.

Amy Winehouse - Tears Dry On Their Own (2006)

Written and recorded by Amy Winehouse for her second studio album, Back to Black. It was released as the album's fourth single on 31 July 2007. While the melody and lyrics are composed by Winehouse, the music behind her voice contains a sample interpolation of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's classic 1967 Motown  hit Ain't No Mountain High Enough, penned by the dynamic duo of Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson.Tears Dry on Their Own became Winehouse's fourth consecutive single to chart inside the top forty of the UK Singles Chart, when it entered at no.37 on 5 August 2007. It also became her eighth UK R&B top forty hit. The single spent four weeks at number one on the UK Airplay Chart during August. After the song's physical release, the single climbed into the top twenty, peaking at no.16. Therefore, Tears Dry on Their Own is Winehouse's second highest-charting single behind Rehab and the fourth consecutive top thirty hit from her second album. To date, it has spent nineteen non-consecutive weeks on the UK Singles Chart, making it her fourth longest-running hit behind Rehab (fifty-seven weeks), her collaboration with Mark Ronson, Valerie (thirty-nine weeks), and Back to Black (thirty-four weeks).

Amy Winehouse - Rehab (2006)

From her second studio album, Back to Black. Written by Winehouse, it was released as the album's lead single in the United Kingdom on 23 October 2006. The lyrics are autobiographical, describing her drinking habits and refusal to enter rehabilitation clinics. The song received widespread critical acclaim and enjoyed commercial success in the UK and abroad. The tune won the 2007 Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song. Rehab also won three Grammy Awards in 2008, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Her subsequent public battle with substance abuse and the song's popularity contributed to its numerous appearances in the mainstream media. Several artists have covered the song, both in official releases and live. There are two official remixes; an awful one featuring Jay-Z that seems to only include him because his number happened to be on the producer's speed dial, and a second featuring Pharoahe Monch. In the UK, a further remix by electronic band Hot Chip was also released.
On a personal note, the very first time I heard this track, I was convinced that it was some long-lost 60's/70's Northern Soul track (drug rehab isn't a new thing dontcha know), such is its authenticity. 

Amy Winehouse - Do Me Good (2006)

The little-known b-side to Rehab; hands up who thought it was an Erika Badu track on first listen? I did.

Mark Ronson feat. Amy Winehouse - Valerie (2007)

Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse covered Valerie for Ronson's second studio album in 2007, Version. Released as the album's third single on 15 October 2007, the track was originally done when Winehouse appeared on Jo Whiley's Live Lounge show on BBC Radio 1. The song was featured in the feature film 27 Dresses. Rolling Stone has called the cover Winehouse's only "notable recording" since Back to Black. Winehouse had previously recorded a slower-tempo version of the song, which appeared as bonus track on the deluxe edition of Back to Black.
The single peaked at Number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, where it spent 19 consecutive weeks inside the Top 20. With sales of 329,490, it became the UK's ninth biggest-selling single of 2007. As of 23 November 2008, the single has sold 491,890 copies in the UK, and spent 36 consecutive weeks on the Official UK Singles Chart between September 2007 and May 2008. It re-entered the chart in late June 2008 to take its total to 39 weeks.
It's a cover of a song by The Zutons from their second studio album in 2006, Tired of Hanging Around. Released as the album's second single on 19 June 2006 in the UK along with their previous single Why Won't You Give Me Your Love?, it gave The Zutons their joint-biggest single to date as well as their second UK Top 10 single.