Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brothers Gonna Work It Out

Ghetto Brothers - You Say That You're My Friend
Ghetto Brothers - Ghetto Brothers Power

Forget gangsta rap – this is the real thing. I first came across the Ghetto Brothers when reading Jeff Chang’s incredible history of hip-hop, ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’. They were a New York gang based in the Bronx and became active during the late 1960s. They were heavily involved in Puerto Rican nationalism, and had a reputation as one of the more politically minded and less vengeful gangs, during a period when gang colours transformed the bombed-out city grid into a spiralling matrix of disputes. “If you went through someone’s neighbourhood, you were a target,” explained Carlos ‘Karate Charlie’ Suarez, the president of the Ghetto Brothers. “If you got caught, they beat the hell out of you.” At one point it was estimated that there were a hundred different gangs claiming 11,000 members, and that 70% were Puerto Rican, the rest black. Other gangs included the Black Spades, Savage Skulls, the Roman Kings, and the Savage Nomads.

The vice-president of the Ghetto Brothers was Benjamin Melendez, a 19-year-old who had founded the gang. According to Chang, Melendez was, “…a teenage diplomat turned young revolutionary – a gifted orator and organiser.” ‘Yellow Benjy’ was a fighter, but his real passion was music. As children, he and his brothers had won a talent contest singing Beatles songs. Melendez formed a Latin-rock band under the Ghetto Brothers name, featuring his brother and fellow songwriter Victor on bass, another brother Robert on rhythm guitar, and assorted players making up the rest of the band. All three were also members of the gang, but saw the band and their music as a way of the communicating their message to a wider audience.

Melendez was instrumental in organising a moderately successful truce between all warring factions in 1971 after one of the Ghetto Brothers, Cornell ‘Black Benjy’ Benjamin, was killed trying to prevent a fight between rival gangs. Instead of seeking revenge on those responsible for his death, Melendez and Suarez used the situation to bring all the gangs together to sign a momentous peace treaty. Change swept through the Bronx.

But for Melendez and his brothers, it was still the music that was their main focus. The sleeve notes for their one and only album ‘Power-Fuerza’ present the group’s ideologies and hopes for their music –

“This album contains a message; a message to the world, from the Ghetto Brothers. The Ghetto Brothers, a community organization dedicated to bridging the ever-increasing gap that exists between society and minority groups, believe music to be the common language of the world. Through music, they are able to inform society of the plight of the 'little people' in their quest for recognition. Therefore, the music of the Ghetto Brothers serves as a way of communication. If the Ghetto Brothers’ dream comes true, the world will learn that the 'little people' wish to be acknowledged; wish to be properly educated in order for them to pass on their knowledge to their children and proudly inform them about their heritage and culture, and be a functioning part of the growth of America. If the Ghetto Brothers' dream comes true, the ‘little people’ will be ‘little people’ no more, and make their own mark in this world. Listen to the Ghetto Brothers… and take heed.”

Moving away from the politics and the admirable sentiments carried within the band’s message, the music itself was influenced by the brothers’ love of the Beach Boys, the Beatles and doo-wop. They started out covering Grand Funk Railroad songs, but soon developed their own style, which was closer to the teen-themed Latin pop of California, with sweet, harmonised melody underpinned by a funky as fuck Latino backbeat. Check out ‘You Say That You’re My Friend’ and try telling me that you don’t just want to break out into a joyous boogie! It’s like the Beatles have had a massive funk injection. The guitars really remind of the Los Hombres’ hit ‘Let It All Hang Out’. Some of the song construction is a bit naive – check the clumsy attempt at a Lennon/McCartney style middle-eight about a minute into the song - but according to Chang, ‘Power-Fuerza’ was recorded in one take, hence the raw, under-produced sound, which actually accentuates the enthusiasm and energy you can hear bursting from the record. The key themes are love and betrayal, as demonstrated by the slower ‘There Is Something In My Heart’, which is still infected with some pure bongo funk and a sweet bassline. ‘Mastica, Chupa Y Jala’ was another dance number, with Santana-inspired guitar heroics from David Silva. Only ‘Viva Puerto Rico Libre’ hinted at the band’s political stance, while the album closed with ‘Ghetto Brother Power’, a live favourite from the time the band played Bronx block parties, plugging their amps into lampposts and inviting all the other gangs along. Chang writes, “…(during) the band’s signature song ‘Ghetto Brothers Power’… they launched into a kind of blazing drum-and-conga breakdown that drove the Bronx kids crazy. The song climaxed with a promise: ‘We are gonna take you higher with Ghetto Brother power!’”

At the time (it is believed to have been recorded in 1972) the band signed a low-key deal for $500 with a small Latin label called Salsa International/Mary Lou Records. It didn’t shift many copies and failed to move that far from the Bronx, but it is a hugely important record in terms of how it reflects a move away from gangs and guns, to a celebration of being young and free. The Ghetto Brothers were instrumental in putting this back on the agenda, and their music deserves far more recognition. I was amazed at how easily I was able to track down a copy of ‘Power-Fuerza’. It just seemed so obscure, despite its obvious historical importance, but good ol’ Google and a passionate UK-based online world music distributor called, erm, Passion Music made it surprisingly accessible. I highly recommend any of you interested in the band to do the same – it’s a brilliant album.

I have hugely simplified the fascinating story of the Ghetto Brothers (and pinched all my facts from Chang), so if you have any interest in learning more, please buy Jeff Chang’s ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ as he devotes a large portion of the book to the gang and the band. You can buy a copy from Amazon.

Buy Ghetto Brothers ‘Power-Fuerza’ from Passion Music

Interviews with Benjamin Melendez and Carlos Suarez, both taken from the 'Can’t Stop Won’t Stop' website

Ghetto Brothers clip featuring Carlos ‘Karate Charlie’ Suarez, who is referred to as ‘Charlie Melendez’ by the narrator -


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Some Shit That Flipped My Lid

Montag - Safe In Sound

First up today is the new album from Montreal’s Montag aka Antoine Bédard. ‘Going Places’ is Bédard’s third album and represents a new direction for the producer, as he veers off into wonderful experimental electronic pop territory, reminiscent of Caribou’s recent masterpiece ‘Andorra’. While not quite having the epic scope and soundmashing skills of the mighty Caribou, ‘Going Places’ is still a wee psychedelic pop gem, especially the two songs featuring vocal contributions from Stars’ Amy Millan, of which I’m posting the gloriously soaring ‘Safe In Sound’. ‘Going Places’ also features collabs with M83’s Anthony Gonzales and Owen Pallet of Final Fantasy, while the title track is the result of the ‘We Have Sound’ initiative in which Bédard sent out a worldwide call for collaborators. Over 70 musicians from 15 countries responded, including members of Isan, E*Rock, Ghislain Poirier, Vitaminsforyou and Ckid, who all contributed clips of sound, resulting in a beautiful song that totally makes the album. ‘Going Places’ was released in the summer in the US, but is getting a UK release by Carpark on the rather strange date of 17th December 2007, which means it probably won’t be making anyone’s end of year lists, which is a shame as it deserves acclaim. Having said that, I don’t suppose anyone really cares about release dates as much as they used to – just try not to forget about it in your pre-Christmas daze.

Montag website
Buy Montag from Norman Records
Montag My Space

Neil Burrell - Towards The Hills

Neil Burrell is a bit of an odd fish, following in the lineage of truly individual artists like Syd, Cap’n Beefheart and Nick Drake. ‘White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over’ is a collection of deeply dippy, freaky folky madness, exemplified by opening song ‘Ooompa Zoompa (Four Voices)’ which directly lifts from the Ooompa Loompa song from the original ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ film, before climaxing with Burrell barking gibberish in tongues as he slashes away at his (I’m imagining) battered acoustic guitar. I warmed to Burrell almost immediately, in a way I never did to Devendra Banhart. Signed by the increasingly maverick Manchester-based Akoustik Anarkhy label (legend has it the trio who make up the label were the only three present at Burrell’s debut gig in the city), the album was produced on a shoestring anywhere Burrell could find to record – junkyards, a basement in Leeds, the mushroom fields (probably). The lo-finess of the production (microphone cords wrapped around light bulbs because he couldn’t afford a proper stand) adds a whiff of authenticity to proceedings until you can almost believe it’s 1968 again and John Peel is befriending Neil Burrell rather than Marc Bolan and a whole new history is being written. This is pastoral, psychedelic UK folk music at it’s very best. ‘White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over’ is released by Akoustik Anarkhy on 10th December 2007.

Buy ‘White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over’ now for £9.99 from Akoustik Anarkhy shop
Neil Burrell My Space
Akoustik Anarkhy website

The Nightjars - No Kicks

Staying in Manchester, I was more than pleased to get my hands on the latest recordings from The Nightjars, a band I tipped for greatness earlier on this year. Unfortunately, I got the CD stuck in the old mini-hi-fi system I have in my bedroom and ended up having to take the fucking thing apart in order to get it out! I’m glad I did, because the seven-track mini-album ‘Towards Light’ finds them starting to fulfil the early potential I heard in last years single ‘Cease To Exist’ and a series of demos the band kindly shared with me. Produced by the mighty Kramer of Shimmy Disc fame (an inspired choice),‘Towards Light’ is a tight, accomplished set of melodic, incendiary post-punk guitar music. The mighty ‘MDMA’ shows off the lyrical talents of bass player / singer Ollie Wright with its stream-of-consciousness loved-up drug babble, while ‘No Kicks’ is two-minutes of impassioned guitar pop in the best traditions of the city, with Wright’s vocal underpinned by his meandering bassline, and spiky guitars. I know a few critics have complained that the songs featured on ‘Towards Light’ have been knocking around for a while now, and perhaps the band haven’t progressed as quickly as many would have hoped. But there will be plenty of people out there who haven’t heard these songs, and they do deserve a wider audience. Plus, Kramer’s exemplary production skills add a final flourish to the whole package, ensuring interest outside of the band’s tight circle of fans. However, I hear they are an awesome proposition live (I still haven’t seen them – please play London soon!), which is maybe why those in the know feel the studio recordings don’t do the band real justice. This is so often the case, but they are just starting out and there is enough promise to suggest even better things from their debut full-lengther, whenever that surfaces. ‘Towards Light’ was released by Reveal Records earlier on in November.

The Nightjars website
Buy The Nightjars from Norman Records
The Nightjars My Space

Gramme - Like U
The Boy Lucas - There Are Great Monsters Going Past

I lamented the demise of Trevor Jackson’s Output Recordings imprint ages ago, but having recently picked up the ‘I Hate Music’ retrospective compilation, it finally feels like the gravedigger’s spade has patted down the earth on the label’s burial site. The lushly packaged box set contains two CD’s – one spanning the early years, with the second focusing on the final years of the label’s existence – and a DVD featuring loads of videos (37 in total) from all the key protagonists. I wasn’t so familiar with the 2004-2006 period, so it was good to get stuck into the second CD and the pioneering futuristic electro funk by the likes of Manhead, Lopazz and DK7, plus the spasmodic punky rantings of Mu, and experimental glitchy techno from Luke Abbott. But it’s the first CD that is the real gem, reminding you of what made Jackson such a brilliant A&R man – Fridge, Four Tet, Sonovac, 7 Hurtz, Colder, Playgroup – the list isn’t endless but it’s pretty long and distinguished one. Then there’s the ones I’d almost forgotten – the distorted punk funk of Gramme, lo-fi weirdness from the Boy Lucas, the hugely underrated electronic post rockers Icarus, Jackson’s twisted Skull alias. The thing that made Output so great was that Jackson signed what he liked, rather than what he thought would be popular, and it was this singular vision that made the label unique. I’m posting Gramme’s ‘Like U’, which doesn’t actually feature on the ‘I Hate Music’ comp, but is one of Output’s finest moments, and the incredibly weird yet beguilingly lovely ‘There Are Great Monsters Going Past’ by The Boy Lucas.

Output Recordings website
Buy 'I Hate Music - A Compilation of Output Recordings 1996-2006' from Norman Records

Life Without Buildings - The Leanover

I’ve been hearing this song ‘Shake It! Shake It!’ on the radio by Thomas Tantrum for ages now and it’s been bugging the shit out of me – firstly because it’s rather annoying, but secondly because it really reminded me of another song and I couldn’t dig out which one. Then it dawned on me – ‘The Leanover’ by Life Without Buildings – an absolutely brilliant song from a Glasgow-based four-piece who were around in the early part of this decade and recorded for Rough Trade offshoot Tugboat. The comparison isn’t really a fair one – there are similarities in the vocal styles of the two female singers, but the Thomas Tantrum vocalist has a contrived Catherine Tate ‘bovvered’ delivery, whereas Sue Tompkins of Life Without Buildings has an utterly charming talky way of singing that makes me want to pop her in my pocket and take her home. I love the way her vocal dances in and out of the post rock backing, leaving you out of breath as you struggle to keep up with what she’s saying. It’s a cracking single and I guess I owe my rediscovery of it to Thomas Tantrum. Life Without Buildings split in 2002 after releasing one acclaimed album, ‘Any Other City’, though a posthumous live album was released back in May this year.

Buy 'Live at the Annandale Hotel' from Norman Records
Life Without Buildings My Space
Thomas Tantrum My Space

Duran Duran - The Chauffeur

I’ve been enjoying the Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die’; partly because I don’t own that many of them, despite having a vast collection of music (it’s good to know there’s still so much out there for me to discover), and partly because it actually seems to be pretty well put together and the choices are really eclectic. There are obviously lots that I would add to the list, but to close this post I’d like to touch on one they did include. Until I met my wife, I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t the biggest fan of Duran Duran, but over the years I have learnt to fully appreciate the brilliance of ‘Rio’, the band’s second and greatest album. Leaving the singles to one side (though you can’t ignore ‘Rio’, Save a Prayer’, ‘My Own Way’ and ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’), real magic is to be found elsewhere on the album. I always think the ambient electronic opening of ‘New Religion’ is something off the Black Dog Productions album ‘Bytes’, until John Taylor’s bendy bassline chugs into earshot. ‘Last Chance on the Stairway’ is bittersweet Durannie pop at it’s very best – John Taylor’s bassline stands out again (Alex James learnt all the tricks from JT), but Andy Taylor’s flashing riff is great and there’s even a vibraphone solo. The production throughout is shinier than one of Simon Le Bon’s metallic suits and his lyrics are mostly ridiculous. All of the above comes together on the album’s tour de force – ‘The Chauffeur’ is one of the best things Duran Duran ever did. It’s even got panpipes fer chrissakes!? Nick Rhodes’s influence is all over ‘The Chauffeur’ – his clanking drum machines and twinkling synths, a swooning JT b-line, and some lyrical ludicrousness from Monsieur Le Bon – “Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving…", and “The aphids swarm up in the drifting haze”. Mental cocaine-fuelled genius from the very top drawer.

Official Duran Duran website
Buy 'Rio: Remastered' from Amazon
Duran Duran My Space


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Take Me Home

The Earlies - Morning Wonder

Wotcha peeps. I've just started a new job so until I settle into a new routine I'm not sure what my posting frequency is going to be. I used to do a lot of writing at work but this new job is looking like it could be hard work! And then there's the small matter of my wife being pregnant! Yep, it's all about to change round my way. So, please bear with me - I've got so much awesome music that I want to post and I don't want to fall into the trap of just posting songs for the sake of it without the usual earnest and considered blathering. I also spilt a glass of orange squash all over my old keyboard and the space bar stopped working. That was annoying. I've got a new one now, which is all ergonomic and lush. Anyway, (tenuous link alert!) it's early in the morning (!) and I've only just woken up so I'm rambling. This is a fantastic song by a fantastic band without any real associated memories for me to bang on about. It's just brilliant. I'll be back soon...

The Earlies website
Buy The Earlies from Norman Records
The Earlies My Space


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Only the truly wise...

Hashim - Primrose Path

Hashim (it means pulverizer or destroyer of evil in Arabic) was the pseudonym for Jerry Calliste Jr, a Bronx-born electro producer best known for the seminal 1983 cut ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’, the first ever release for the classic Cutting Records label, of which he was also the Vice President. ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’ is Hashim’s best-known song – quite rightly too, it’s a classic breakers anthem, has featured on countless compilations and still sounds innovative and cutting edge to this very day. However, I am always drawn to the lesser-known ‘Primrose Path’.

Whereas ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’ was proper machine music, ‘Primrose Path’, its title taken from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (“Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads”), had a human heart, with instrumental backing from The Force adding a funked-up, live feel to the deep electro sounds. A fat rubber band bass line and atmospheric guitar stabs combined with pumping 808 beats, haunting vocodered vocals and Hashim’s trademark melodic orchestral strings to create a fantastically atmospheric and evocative song. It's harder to pinpoint the influence of ‘Primrose Path’ as you can with ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’, but it was definitely way ahead of its time and still sounds incredible to these ears. It was included on ‘Electro 11’ (released in 1986), which also featured cuts by 2 Live Crew, Roxanne Shanté and Stetsasonic, and later turned up on Dave Clarke’s belting 1996 ‘X-Mix – Electro Boogie’, alongside classic electro and techno tracks by Underground Resistance, Aux 88 and Model 500. Hashim also made his mark as a producer on a number of other seminal tracks, including the Imperial Brothers’ ‘We Come to Rock’ (which I wrote about here).

For such a gifted producer I’m always left with the feeling that Hashim didn’t leave the mark he could have done. He was hardly prolific, recording a total of four singles as a solo artist from 1983 to 1987, including the two mentioned above, and only recently resurfaced with an mp3 only release for his own company Bassmint Music in 2005. Not exactly a vast body of work, but certainly a case of quality over quantity, and his reputation as a true electro pioneer will never be in doubt.

Search eBay for Hashim
Hashim discography
Hashim My Space
Hashim at Hashim Music