Another huge loss. Prince is dead at 57. He was one-of-a-kind and had what George Frazier used to croon about—he had duende, that special combination of charisma, talent, looks, style and magic.
Back in 1997, Mark Jacobson wrote in Esquire, that Prince “dominated the eighties music scene as Louis Armstrong did that of the twenties, as Charlie Parker did that of the forties. Eloquently exploiting his gender/race dichotomies with a horny sincerity that made him the legitimate successor to such crossover gods as Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, the Artist was indisputably the Man.”
I was never a huge fan myself but liked more than enough of his music and certainly admired his genius—“horny sincerity” is about perfect.
The Hip Hop universe has awoken to some more tragic news this morning; Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg“The Five-Foot Assassin” and “The Funky Diabetic” , a founding member and literal cornerstone of the world renowned Golden Age of Hip Hop era group A Tribe Called Quest, apparently succumbed to the very disease he had made a favored appellation of and in recent years had struggled with. As of this writing, no official announcement has been made yet, but news sources had independently confirmed his passing, first noted on Twitter by legendary DJ Chuck Chillout.
I cannot for the life of me run down the details of his life at this point; having been a huge fan from the beginning and A Tribe Called Quest being on the itinerary of my musical young adulthood, it’s just mind-numbing to have lost someone critical too soon by anyone’s measure. Not to mention, we are losing so many dearly-held artists from so many areas in music these days that I can honestly say that I was shocked to hear about this, but that shock was quickly replaced by that very numbness that such an event would often inspire days later when you’ve had time to process the entirety of a person’s life, impact and death while you compare feelings and moments with friends and fellow fans. If there is PTSD for music, I must be in the throes of it, and it’s not something I would wish on anyone.
Nevertheless, instead of a eulogy culled from multiple news items, I present a link to an article from Vulture.com that was published last November in which Phife runs down his five favorite songs of A Tribe Called Quest; one from each album they made together. Perhaps at a later date I will revisit the idea of discussing the band’s impact on Hip Hop and music as well, as they are certainly worthy. Meanhwile, Rise In Power, Malik Taylor.
Lastly, the title is borrowed from this track I came across while thinking of what to write. Listening to it again, I finally broke away from the numbness I implied earlier and had a moment with my inner self. We all can relate to that moment because we all have someone or something that touches that button one last time before they go on their journey, leaving something for us to think about; what was, what could have been. I just don’t know.
Phillips was ahead of his time. So-called race records were selling in the early 1950s, but not widely. The singles he recorded in Memphis weren’t moving. He was in danger of going out of business. When the mystery train that was Presley came around the bend, he was not too stupid to climb aboard.
It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider how lucky it was that Presley walked into Phillips’s studio and not someone else’s. Another producer (that term had not yet come into use in the record industry) might have put him to work singing country-pop ditties with string sections. He might have been another Eddy Arnold.
Phillips already had an aesthetic ethos. In some ways, he had prepared his whole life for Elvis’s arrival. Part of Phillips’s ethos, Mr. Guralnick writes, was his “sense that there were all these people of little education and even less social standing, both black and white, who had so much to say but were prohibited from saying it.”
“We Record Anything—Anywhere—Anytime” was the slogan. This meant a lot of church services, weddings, and funerals, but Phillips’s dream, the reason that he set up the studio, was to have a place where any aspiring musician could come in and try out, no questions asked. Phillips would listen and offer suggestions and encouragement. If he liked what he heard, he would record it. For a fee, the performer could cut his or her own record.
Phillips was extremely good at this. He was patient with the musicians; he was adept with the technology; above all, he was supportive. He hated formulas. He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different. The pop sound in 1950 was smooth and harmonic. Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic. Word got around, and musicians no one else would record started turning up at the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips got them to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.
ESQ: Was fame all it was cracked up to be, when you found it?
PM: It sort of was really, yeah. Because part of what it’s cracked up to be is difficult as well as great. They’d warned that. I remember making a very conscious choice: “OK, we’re getting really famous now, you’ve got to decide, whether or not to go for it.” For some reason Marilyn Monroe came into my mind. Like: this could be horrible. It was actually after a trip to Greece. We weren’t famous in Greece, and I’d hung out with the hotel band and was chatting to them: “I’m in a band, too, you know? We’re called The Beatles.” And I got a glazed look from them. I thought, “This is OK, if the fame gets too much we can always come to Greece.” Then, of course, the next year it was like, “Oh, no, you’re famous in Greece, too. Oh, God.” And I remember thinking, “Do you want to do this or don’t you?” And it was, “I like it too much to stop.”
ESQ: Some people struggle greatly with being famous. It screws them up. You seem to have taken to fame with a certain amount of ease. You embraced it.
PM: I think to some degree that’s true. What happens is, if your life goes wrong, like with the breakup of The Beatles, then fame is a nightmare because you can’t escape it, and you’ve created it. That’s when the difficulty kicks in. But what you’re saying is, some people it kicks in anyway, even if they’re doing all right.
ESQ: They can’t handle the attention.
PM: I don’t mind that. I have a joke with my daughter Mary: sometimes I won’t be in a great mood and we’ll go somewhere and the people will be all over me and she’ll turn to Nancy and say, “He likes a bit of adulation. It cheers him up,” and the thing is, yep, that is true. All my life I’ve been trying to win a school prize or trying to do OK in an exam or trying to get a good job. I’ve always been trying to do something where people go: you’re good. When you get it, it seems a shame to me to go, oh, shit. To me it’s like, this is what I wanted. I do like it, I must say. The attention’s never really bothered me. I’ve always thought, “OK, you’re famous, you’ve chosen that path. You can’t blame anyone else.” As long as you’re enjoying it that’s good. And when it goes wrong you’re just going to have to deal with it.
Louis Armstrong, summoned by King Oliver, came up to Chicago in the summer of 1922, Buster Bailey reports that “Louis upset Chicago. All the musicians came to hear Louis. What made Louis upset Chicago so? His execution, for one thing, and his ideas, his drive. Well, they didn’t call it drive, they called it ‘attack’ at the time. Yes, that’s what it was, man. They got crazy for his feeling.”
His feeling. Even toward the end of his life, when many of the same tunes would be played night after night, month after month, Louis could still, as trombonist Trummy Young remembers, make a sideman cry.
His feeling. Billie Holiday, a young girl in Baltimore, listening to Louis’s recordings: “He didn’t say any words, but somehow it just moved me so. It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was making love to me. That’s how I wanted to sing.”
There has been no jazz musician so widely, deeply, durably influential as Louis. And no trumpet player who could do all he could do on the horn. Once, Louis told journalist Gilbert Millstein, “I’m playin’ a date in Florida, livin’ in the colored section and I’m playin’ my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there’s an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana, which he said he never heard phrased like that before. To him it was as if an orchestra was behind it.”
“I was out at [anthropologist] Margaret Mead’s school and was teaching some little kids how to play instantly. I asked the question, ‘How many kids would like to play music and have fun?’ And all the little kids raised up their hands. And I asked, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ And one little girl said, ‘You just apply your feelings to sound.’ And I said, ‘Come and show me.’ When she went to the piano to do it, she tried to show me, but she had forgotten about what she said. So I tried to show her why all of a sudden all her attention span had to go to another level, and after that she went ahead and did it. But she was right: If you apply your feelings to sound, regardless of what instrument you have, you’ll probably make good music.”–Ornette Coleman.
I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, “I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.” But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.
The Cape Cod pianist Marie Marcus came to New York from Boston to do a radio show in 1932, when she was eighteen. Her experience had been limited to Boston radio shows and to playing for a week at a Chinese restaurant called the Mahjong. “Tillie’s Kitchen, in Harlem, was a fried-chicken place,” she has said, “and Bob Howard, who sounded just like Fats Waller, was on piano. We went up there quite often, and one night Fats himself came in. I remember the whole room lighted up. He played, and then listened, and when I’d finished, he pointed to his heart, and said, ‘For a white gal, you sure got it there.’ We got to talking, and I told him that I would like to further my education in jazz, and did he know a good teacher? He looked at me and said, ‘How about me?’ I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. He had a small office, with two pianos, in the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, and during the next year or so, when he wasn’t on the road or making records, he’d call me up and say, ‘Come on down and let’s play some paino.’ You couldn’t exactly call them lessons. We’d play duets, and then he’d play, and have me listen carefully to the things he did. He was very serious when we were working together, and I was grateful for every minute. He’d tell me, ‘When you’re playing jazz, remember the rhythm, remember the rhythm. Make the number of notes count. Tell a story, and get that feeling across to the people. Please the people by making it come from here.”