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For the Love of Soul
By Mark Anthony Neal -- Cultural Critic
Jun 16, 2006, 12:03

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Whether by legends such as Grand Master Flash rummaging through the record collections of their parents, or by “professional” DJs and producers slumming through stacks at used record shops (or on EBay), the act and art of “digging in the crates” remains a critical aspect of hip-hop culture. Though there are many DJs who dig out of a sincere love for the music, there are many more for which the crates become the promised land for obscure samples that might not have to be legally “cleared,” thus bringing down production cost for the next “rent-a-rapper” hoping to go platinum.

For those of us who aren’t DJs or aspiring urban producers, “digging in the crates’ is simply about piecing together the legacy of a music—Soul in this case—that inspired protesters, was the soundtrack for radical social change and became the building blocks for the young Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Afro-Caribbeans who gave the world Hip-Hop. Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Oliver Wang are two such people, for which “digging in the crates” is an act of love. In his professional life, Thompson is the oft-quoted and highly visible drummer of the critically acclaimed hip-hop collective The Roots. Wang in a West Coast music journalist, college professor (at Cal-Long Beach) and genius behind the influential audio-blog Soul Sides. The duo are also soul music nerds, whose recently released compilations, ?uestlove Presents Babies Makin’ Babies 2: Misery Strikes Back…No More Babies (BBE Records) and Soul Sides, Volume One (Zealous Records), are further proof that what they do, they do for the love of the Soul.

Wang has been DJing and writing about music for more than a decade and it’s in that context that he developed an affection for Soul music. As Wang told fellow music scribe Ernest Hardy (whose collection Bloodbeats: Vol. 1 was just published), “this was music designed to appeal to the spirit and I think my love for soul and soul-influenced music is responding to those qualities that artists were trying to evoke—the sublime, the transcendent.” (LA Weekly, May 10, 2006). In keeping with Wang’s passion, many tracks on Soul Sides are marked by a distinct earthiness that mirrors “in-progress” political sensibilities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not surprisingly, some of the proceeds for the recording are going to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

Ultimately though, Soul Sides is about great music that far too few are aware of and timeless pieces that deserve more shine. In the latter camp one might place William Bell’s oh-so melancholy “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” which has become musical fodder for Dilated Peoples, Calvin Richardson and Jaheim, who did a credible remake with his track “Put That Woman First.” While Erma Franklin would never suggest that she was in the shadow of her younger sister Aretha, it’s clear that her own musical legacy has suffered. “Piece of My Heart”, which Wang says is his favorite on the compilation, is a reminder of the elder Franklin’s own significant talents.

Coming from one of the most insightful hip-hop critics working today, it is also not surprising that some on the tracks on Soul Sides had circulated in fairly well known hip-hop samples. Linda Lynell’s “What a Man’ gave hip-hop artists Salt ‘N’ Pepa a certified platinum single, but who knew that Lynell was a “blue-eyed” soul singer, matching Teena Marie note-for-note in that regard. The late Johnny “Guitar” Watson was one of the more underrated funk and soul artists of the 1970’s and if not for Redman’s recovery of “Superman Lover,” a whole generation of folk would have never known him. “Lovin’ You,” Watson’s contribution to Soul Sides, is a dark rendering of a man struggling with a love addiction. That darkness was perfectly captured when Just Blaze used it to foreground yet another threat from Jay Z on a hidden track from the latter’s Unplugged recording (“I ain’t gotta sell another record in my life…”).

As with any great compilation there are some sweet surprises. Jimmy Jones’s obscure “Live and Let Live” recalls the Motown funk of Willie Hutch. Though Donny Hathaway is easily the most well known artist on the Soul Sides compilation, Wang manages to add more layers to the man’s soulful eclecticism via Hathaway’s live cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” (from Donny Hathaway Live, 1972). There’s little doubt that Sharon Jones is an old soul, but to listen to her “All Over Again” (with the Dap-Kings), one would think that the song must have come off the Stax assembly line 40 years ago. That Jones recorded the song in 2005, to relative obscurity, is a major shame that Wang helps to rectify. Finally there’s the late Weldon Irvine’s “Morning Sunrise,” which, with it’s invocation of the Soul harmony groups of the early 1970’s (The Stylistics, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, etc), feels out of sync with the rest of the collection but serves as a great introduction to this under-regarded genius, who was the long-time musical director for Nina Simone and, until his death in 2002, a musical advisor for the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

Whereas Soul Sides is all about guts and grits, ?uestlove’s tastes are a bit more nuanced in this second compilation in his Babies Makin’ Babies series. Where as the first collection seemed solely focused on finding the best obscure Soul for the “two-backed beast”, Babies Makin’ Babies 2: Misery Strikes Back…No More Babies finds its groove about the dual tragedies of longing and losing. Though ?uestlove might be forgiven for his inclusion of Al Green’s now cliché “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart” (though admittedly one of the Reverend’s greatest performances), there is little else than could detract from a compilation that includes the Ohio Players (“Our Love Has Died”), Bobby Womack (“That’s the Way I Feel About”) and the uncut, irrepressible funk of Betty Davis, whose “Anti-Love Song” has become the new favorite of my seven-year-old whurl-a-gurl.

That said, Babies Makin’ Babies 2 makes its case in it’s eclecticism—a world where Albert King’s cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” (from the former’s legendary Born Under a Bad Sign, 1967) meets the Delfonics’ “I’m Sorry” (yet another forgotten Soul gem, which has been given a credible new sheen courtesy of Jaheim on his latest Ghetto Classics). It is a world where Natalie Cole (an incredible post-Ms. Ross rendition of “Good Morning Heartache”) and the late Syreeta Wright (with the splendid “Cause We Ended as Lovers”) can break bread.

The history of Soul music is available on disc and in print in ways that are unprecedented. With so many compilations flooding market, both Soul Sides, Volume One and Babies Makin’ Babies 2, Oliver Wang and Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson show that it’s not always only about the money.


Mark Anthony Neal is a longtime contributor to He is the author of four books, including New Black Man, which will be published in paperback in September. Neal is currently working on a study of black popular culture and black masculinity titled Thug Nigga Intellectual (NYU Press). He is a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

© Copyright 2006

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