The Roots

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In your music collection there’s at least one album created between 1998-2003 at the Electric Lady studios. That was the period which the studio homed the music collective The Soulquarians, the gods of the Neo-soul sound.

In 1998 D’Angelo moved into Electric Lady Studios in New York to record his Voodo album. He roped in drummer Questlove to work on the follow-up to Brown Sugar and because of the long studio hours, the drummer simultaneously moved the recording of the Roots LP Things Fall Apart to Electric Lady.

Questlove and D’Angelo’s chemistry was sparked by their love for classic songs from years gone by. The core of the Soulquarians was completed by composer James Poyser, Detroit genius producer J Dilla, Common and Erykah Badu. Although they never want to be tied to the genre, the Soulquarians are heavy influencers of the Neo-Soul sound we know today. Their influence can be heard in some of today’s artists such as Robert Glasper, Rayvn Lenae, NxWorries and MoRuf.

Not suggesting that these musicians no longer work together, because they do, but here are some of the classic albums that were produced in that period of them working together in one space sharing their gifts.

D’ANGELO-Voodoo

YEAR: 2000

The 13 track album which was overshadowed by D’Angelo’s strip down and steamy down video in Untitled (How Does It Feel), which left a lasting effect on a lot of women. But it was a masterpiece from the music genius which had a funky soulful Hip Hop feel thanks to J Dilla’s sick sampling. D’Angelo featured Red Man and Method Man in Left and Right. Such was the level of artistry here that Q. Tip had initially laced a verse for the song but it was deemed lukewarm hence D’Angelo roped in the New York duo. The album bagged a Grammy.

 

THE ROOTS-Things Falls Apart

YEAR: 1999

This was a follow-up to their Illadelph Halflife project which came out in ‘96. It’s this the project here that earned them critical acclaim from industry fundis and probably that ‘legendary’ tag too. It was the group’s novel experience at selling over 500 000 copies. The Roots won the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the Grammys for You Got Me featuring Erykah Badu. Stand out songs here include Act Too (Love of my life) and Step Into The Realm.

 

COMMON-Like Water For Chocolate

YEAR: 2000

Common just sounds extra nice on J Dilla beats. Dooinit is one of the finest tracks where Common rips the beat and some rappers with the energy of Julius Malema at a rally behind the mic.  While songs like The Light and 6th Sense remain classics till this day, Payback Is A Grandmother, Film Called Pimp and Song For Assata were gems that many never paid close attention to. There’s a great balance of social commentary, love, lyricism and musicality throughout the album.

ERYKAH BADU-Mama’s Gun

YEAR: 2001

Mama’s Gun is probably the album that made a lot of the young fans of Badu fall in love with her music. It’s unbelievable how an album can be so cohesive with a cocktail different sounds. Cleva is a beautiful Jazz joint that doesn’t sound out of place alongside the sticky Jay Dee drums on Didn’t Cha Know. So many musicians consciously and subconsciously use this album as blueprint to creating a Neo Soul project. This is a classic-I can visualize myself listening to this at 60. Orange Moon and Bag Lady are just some of the classic joints in this album.

 

COMMON-Electric Circus

YEAR: 2002

Some people said this album was Common’s regress after Like Water For Chocolate which came out two years prior. But this project was simply ahead of its time. It was great body of music by the Chicago rapper. It had influences of Rock, electronic and funk soaked in the Soulquarians sounds. Common once said that he wasn’t feeling Hip Hop at the time of creation and his choice of sound was influenced by Jimi Henrix and Pink Floyd. Stand out tracks here include Between Me, You and Liberation, Heaven Somewhere, Ferris Wheel and Soul Power.

 

What’s your favourite Soulquarians influenced album?

 

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If the past few years in America are anything to go by, the remaining three years under President Donald Trump will conscientize US artists into producing and releasing more pro-black music with strong political undertones.

Since 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin who died, black Americans have grown more impatient with the lethargic manner in which this and other cases have been dealt with.  This gave birth to the activist Black Lives Movement which gripped the world’s attention through demonstrations throughout the country, especially in 2014 when another black teen, Michael Brown, was murdered. In a video of one of the demonstrations that went viral, protesters are heard singing Kendrick Lamar’s socially charged Alright.

Lamar’s 2015 released album, To Pimp a Butterfly, had more political undertones than all of his prior work. The cover itself was a statement; it depicts him surrounded by a mob of young black males posing in front of the White House with a passed out judge lying on the ground in front of them. On The Blacker the Berry Lamar raps about issues faced by black people, but at the end of the song he asks himself why he cried when Martin was murdered when black on black violence is commonplace in hoods-turning the question to the black community, daring them to look at themselves first.

Rappers such as Common, De La Soul, Talib Kweli, Black Thought of the The Roots, Nas and Mos Def have always been classified “conscious” rappers for their socially aware lyrics. It’s as though they were the artists expected to do the ground work of making us aware of such social ills, while others only have the burden of setting the mood at parties, bedrooms and wherever else.

Just before the release of her last album A Seat at the Table, Solange went on Twitter to say the project is “meant to provoke healing and journey of self-improvement.”

The Neo-soul, funk and hip hop influenced 20 track project is unashamedly inspired by what’s happening in that country. Both her parents have interludes where they talk about their own experiences with racial tension in America. “I’ve always been proud to be black, never wanted to be nothing else…there’s such beauty in black people, it saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride and if you do, it’s considered anti-white.  No, you are pro-black and that’s okay…that you celebrate black culture does not mean you don’t like white culture. I get irritated when people say it’s racism…or when they complain that there’s a black history month,” says Mother Tina Knowles

D’Angelo’s Black Messiahs also majorly politically inclined. Inside the cover of the album the artist writes “ The title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about people rising up in Fergurson and in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”

In the early 1970s during the war in Vietnam and the mass demonstrations by the Martin Luther King Jr. crusades and as well as protests by students on college campuses in America, Marvin Gaye was inspired to pen the poignant What’s Going On album.

“I began to evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say…I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people,” said Gaye on a documentary titled Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On.

The album, which petrified Motown founder Berry Gordy at first, went on to be one of the best works Motown has ever released. The music itself did not bring about change, but the people did. The artist conscientize his many listeners and made them aware of what’s happening around them. May 1st in 1972 was proclaimed as Marvin Gaye Day by the Mayor of Washington DC.

The dynamics are quite different here in South Africa-yes artist will be seen performing at rallies for specific political parties but it’s rare seeing them voicing out their opinions, especially in their work. The likes of The Brother Moves On, Phuzekhemisi, Freshly Ground and a few dare tread on socio-political ground. It could be because the situation doesn’t look dire as yet. During the apartheid the likes of the late Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba were quite vocal about the draconian system while people like the great Fela Kuthi weren’t afraid of going up against authority in other parts of Africa.

Kwaito artist Kabelo Mabalane did take aim at poor leaders in his Immortal Volume 3 album released in 2015. In a track titled Free This Land Mabalane questions the country’s state affairs aimed at then President Jacob Zuma, without naming him. “People follow, but they don’t check their leader, that’s why they are also spinning,” he sings on the heavy afro-beat tune. Then comes the refrain “We Miss You Mbeki Where are you,” which is sampled from a 1989 protest hit by Sello ‘Chicco’Twala We Miss You Manelo.


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