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Larry Levan, Disco-Gospel and a (Possible) White Lie

7 Dec
Stand on the Word and Larry Levan

The “Stand on the Word” single and Larry Levan

Yesterday, NPR ran a story on the late Larry Levan, the legendary DJ from New York’s Paradise Garage and all-around golden boy of the ’70s and ’80s dance scene. The piece closed with Levan’s remix of “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness, which appears in the recently released box set by Ministry of Sound, the London nightclub/record label. The beginning of Levan’s dance mix is an anxious mashup of gospel vocals and pulsing beat, and it’s easy to imagine the track emerging from the club scene of a pre-Giuliani, vibrant but scary New York.

The story and the track got me thinking about the night I discovered Levan at a tavern uptown, several blocks north of the old Paradise Garage. Sometime during the spring of ’08, some friends and I wandered into a random, comfy bar that served cheap, tall, gin and tonics. The evening’s soundtrack was being curated by the bartender’s iPod, a mostly forgettable mix of low-key dance and pop, the kind of upbeat melodic murmur that easily fades into the background while you’re laughing at someone’s outrageous subway story.

All of the sudden, the sound of high-pitched piano started trickling out of the speakers. Hi-hat came in quickly behind it, steadying the soulful piano intro with an easy yet infectious beat. Organ fluttered gently under that, barely audible, but playing its part. Then the choir came in, layering gospel oohs over bass drum.

And then the party started. Bass guitar strutted, disco beat bounced, and the choir swelled, singing “That’s how the good Lord works!” with glorious, churchified exuberance.

I was feeling it, and had long checked out of whatever conversation was happening around me. This song was a combination of the gospel music that had dominated my Pentecostal childhood and the disco sound that I secretly discovered and fell in love with later in life. This song was me, past and present.

Once the track ended, I waved the bartender over and asked him what it was.

“‘Stand on the Word,'” he said. “The Larry Levan Mix.”

I wrote it down and Googled it as soon as I got home. I found out that the choir featured in the mix was called the Celestial Choir, and a commenter on YouTube claimed they were based at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights back in 1982, when the original recording of “Stand on the Word” was made. Further details of the history of the track are hazy. Some say that Levan wasn’t even involved with the mix or the recording, and that his name was only slapped on the record after the fact in an effort to boost sales and give the song some cachet. If that’s true, then the plan seems to have worked. To this day, the celebrated Levan name is still associated with this mix.

But I hope it’s not true. I hope that Levan mixed this one sweaty night at the Paradise Lounge and everyone on the dance floor caught the holy ghost.

Listen: Celestial Choir, “Stand on the Word” (Larry Levan Mix)

Throwback: “No One But The Lord” by Dannie Belles

12 Jul
Dannie Belles Making the Most of Today album cover

Making the Most of Today by Dannie Belles

As some of you may know, over the weekend MF DOOM and Ghostface Killah, who collaborate as the duo DOOM/Starks, set the hearts of hip-hop fans all aflutter with a little read cassette tape featuring a remix of the track “Victory Laps,” which will be released on iTunes July 26. Don’t know what the original sounds like since it’s not out yet, but the Madvillainz remix features the same sample used in one of my favorite Blackalicious tracks, “A to G.” I did some digging, and thanks to the wonder that is the internet I found that the descending piano chords and fetching guitar twang that inspired MF Doom and Blackalicious came from a rare funky recording of “No One but the Lord” by the ’70s gospel outfit Dannie Belles, featuring the late gospel songstress Danniebelle Hall. Dannie Belles’ version is so smooth and supercool that you almost forget it’s a gospel song. (Not that gospel can’t be cool! Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the 1982 Celestial Choir can attest to that.)

Listen to the track below (originally appeared on the album Making the Most of Today).

Throwback: “Changes” Cover by Seu Jorge

27 Jun

Some personal changes are afoot for me on this fine Monday, and I can’t get the David Bowie classic “Changes” out of my head. And while the original song by the Thin White Duke will always be the definitive version, Seu Jorge does sing a mean Portuguese cover.

Video: Frank Ocean, “Novacane”

22 Jun

I haven’t been able to get Frank Ocean out of my mind since I first saw the video for his song “Novacane” last week. Rarely have I seen a musician turn hedonism on its head in such a creepy, otherworldly way. (Kudos to both Ocean and video director Nabil Elderkin.) Check out the video below.

Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra EP (previously released as a mixtape) will be out July 26 via Def Jam.

So Fresh, So Clean: New Music from Radiohead, Jean Grae and Washed Out

21 Jun

I don’t know what it is — maybe it’s the summer solstice, maybe it was just a good week in music — but I was feeling a lot of new tracks this past week. As a matter of fact, there was so much new stuff out there that I liked that I had a hard time narrowing down my list for today’s post. But I did, and I now present to you this week’s roundup of musical hotness.

Radiohead, “Staircase” (Live From the Basement)

Yesterday evening Radiohead released a video of a live performance of the brand new song “Staircase” on YouTube. The performance is an excerpt from the band’s live session for the British TV program From the Basement, which is the creation of “sixth Radiohead member” Nigel Godrich. This tribal, trance-inducing track features drummer Clive Deamer playing alongside Radiohead percussionist Phil Selway (yep, double drummers). The session will air July 1.

Jean Grae, “Casebasket”

Here’s why lady MC Jean Grae deserves the utmost respect: on this new joint she shouts out Tampax, marzipan, scrabble and the “Rudy Huxtuble dance” all while spittin’ the hot fiya over relentless snare and bass. Basically, she’s the truth. You can download the track (from the forthcoming mixtape Cookies or Comas, out Thursday) via RCRD LBL.

P.S. 50 points to those who know which Cosby Show episode inspired the Rudy Huxtable dance.

Washed Out, “Amor Fati”

It’s only fitting that chillwave darling Washed Out would release a proper debut full-length during the warm months, what with mastermind Ernest Greene’s proclivity to lo-fi, summer-fantasy-inducing synth pop. This hazy cut comes from Washed Out’s upcoming album Within and Without, out July 12 on Sub Pop. Makes me reminisce about 11-year-old me swaying to Depeche Mode in my sunny peach bedroom. Download the track via Pitchfork.

Portishead and ATP, ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror London Mixtape

Honorably mention to Portishead this week for the mixtape they curated with All Tomorrow’s Parties to promote the upcoming London I’ll Be Your Mirror event, which will feature all of the folks on the mix. High points include the moody opening featuring Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Portishead, the Books’ “A Cold Freezin’ Night,” Doom’s “Gazzillion Ear” (love the Hadron Collider shout out!), Foot Village’s “Lovers With Iraqis,” and the wind down with Caribou and Beach House.

Got a new song (released or posted in the last week) you’re excited about? Leave a comment and tell me about it.

Just A Whole Lot of Hollerin’: A Response to the Response to Jezebel’s White Girl Hip Hop Article

16 Jun

Screen shot White Girls Covering Hip Hop Hits article

On Monday, Jezebel editor Irin Carmon posted a short piece called “White Girls Covering Hip Hop Hits” (obviously) about the apparent growing phenomenon of Caucasian females covering hip hop songs on YouTube. I thought it was decent and intriguing and I was very curious to see what kind of comments people would leave below the article. Because subject matter like that should definitely inspire some interesting comments.

And oh, how it did.

What started off as a discussion over the point of the article in the discussion thread turned into a heated, long-winded, and often confusing internet fight about discrimination, appropriation, reparations and all those other fun race topics. I wasn’t surprised that a heated discussion happened, but I was a bit surprised by how quickly it blew up. When I first read the article earlier this week, I didn’t feel the need to comment (I often don’t comment on random articles because it seems like no matter what you say, someone will pick a fight with you), but after reading through the comments today, I decided to get a few things off my chest here. So here’s what I’d like to address:

The “What is the point of this article?” Question. I wasn’t confused by the article, but I was thoroughly confused by this question. I thought the points Carmon was making were that a.) you don’t see white girls rapping that often, so it’s still a novelty when you do, and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just out of the norm; and b.) the lyrics, which are at times misogynistic, are reappropriated when they come out of the mouths of white females instead of non-white males. Done and done. Why wasn’t this clear to more people? (Seriously, I really want to know, drop a comment if you have some insight on this. Totally open to disagreement.)

The “New Generation” Sermon. After people got all sorts of pissy, one of the most vocal posters, who goes by the username VisforVanity, repeatedly asserted that she is not racist because she is part of a diverse, aware “new generation” “where racism is watering down.” I’m sorry, but comments like this make my eyes literally roll all the way to the back of my head. I don’t know anything about whoever VisforVanity really is in RL other than the fact that she says she’s 19. But I’m only 28 and not too far removed from this “new generation,” and I’ve had people my age and younger say blatantly prejudice or accidentally racist things to me, and recently. No, my experience with racism is nothing like my mother’s, who went through desegregation; or like my grandmother’s, who was probably called “gal” more times than she’d would’ve liked to admit. My experiences, for the most part, have been a lot more tame. But I don’t believe this “new generation” business. Not yet. I’ll credit this kind of hopeful but ignorant thinking to VisforVanity’s youth. I don’t think she’s racist, just young.

The Tangents. Somehow commenters start going off about reparations and Israel. Seriously? I thought we were talking about YOUTUBE VIDEOS. Yes, I get that the mostly seemingly harmless pop culture minutiae can justifiably inspire larger necessary social conversations, but let’s take it down a notch. ‘Cause you know, THEY’RE YOUTUBE VIDEOS.

I’m going to repeat myself, but I really feel the need to reiterate that in the end, this piece was about novelty. Imagine if Ice-T or ODB or 50 covered “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Tell me that wouldn’t get seven million hits on YouTube.

The article was also about irony, which Carmon also notes. In the all-girl, a cappella video cover for “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” the chicks are rocking flipped collars, knee socks and tennis rackets. We all know that’s fashion code for WASP. Homegirls knew what they were doing.

Sigh. I feel better, but I’m fully aware that I might need to brace myself for a possible internet fight with someone about this post, seeing as how my blog is so popular (up to four readers now). Let me know what you think y’all.