The Political Prog of Kalahari Surfers

Kalahari Surfers

“Weirdly, music was my political education,” says Warrick Sony, the man behind the anti-apartheid experimental ‘80s prog project Kalahari Surfers.

Born in apartheid South Africa, Sony’s white family was apolitical. “They came out of the post-war obey-your-leaders generation who didn’t like to rock a comfortable boat,” Sony says. But when he went to school in Durban, he found the Record King shop in Ajmeri Arcade, which imported LPs by everyone from Frank Zappa to Robert Wyatt to German minimalists like Faust. The band Can was especially important, Sony says, because they “played a European music which was as close to African music as one could get without being in any way obvious.”

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The History of Philosophy According To Lord Weird Slough Feg

Slough Feg

Since 1990, The Lord Weird Slough Feg—Slough Feg for short—have been mining the sweet spot between classic rock and heavy metal. For the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and all-around mastermind Mike Scalzi, that spot can be traced to the magic moment in the late ‘70s when Iron Maiden founder Steve Harris decided he wanted to take his love of Irish rockers Thin Lizzy to the next histrionic level.

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The Spiritual Successors of the Wu-Tang Sword Style

Eloh Kush

Eloh Kush

With the recent four-part documentary Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, as well as an accompanying EP of new songs, Staten Island’s favorite sons have returned to lay claim to a legacy that stretches back nearly 30 years. But for some faithful acolytes, the group never really left. For these rappers, Wu-Tang Clan is almost a religion—the Wu’s deft marriage of martial arts flicks, Five-Percent Nation knowledge, and tales from the street made such a deep impression, they’ve taken it upon themselves to keep the group’s sound alive.

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Album of the Day: Radiohead, “MINIDISCS [HACKED]”

OK Computer was Radiohead’s sky-scraping kiss-off to Britpop. At a time when other bands were testing their audience’s goodwill by trying to find new ways to reframe Beatles licks, Radiohead appeared to put all of that behind them, acting on Pink Floyd-level ambition without really sounding like Pink Floyd. It rushes on you all at once, purposeful and seemingly complete in its outlook and sound. It would prove impossible to copy—though a good many fourth-tier acts would certainly try. Even Radiohead never attempted to recreate its specific magic again.

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The Merch Table: Ziemba Creates Perfumes to Accompany Her World-Building Electropop

Photos by Marcus McDonald

Music is only a small portion of what New York-based artist and musician René Kladzyk releases under the Ziemba moniker. In addition to being a musician, Kladzyk is also a perfumer who has paired her latest work—a series of sci-fi concept albums centered around an “imagined parallel world and a very real place” called ARDIS—with handmade perfume oils, scented candles, and body lotion. Buy the accompanying fragrance, get a digital download of the record (though regular, unscented tapes are available, too).

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On “Final Transmission,” Cave In Play Through The Pain

A brief history of the Eastern Massachusetts band Cave In reads as follows: they started hard, then got weird. On their 1998 debut Until Your Heart Stops, the group—vocalist/guitarist Stephen Brodsky, guitarist Adam McGrath, drummer John-Robert Conners, and bassist Caleb Scofield—introduced themselves as complicated hardcore band; by the aughts, they’d begun investigating “heavy, heavy space rock.” Jupiter, released in 2000, and the 2003 major-label-debut Antenna are metal only in the broadest definition of the term. Miraculously, the transition worked, and not only did their original fans follow, their audience grew.

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Album of the Day: Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, “Be Known Ancient​/​Future​/​Music”

 

Percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar may not be as well known as his AACM forebears Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but his contribution to the continuum of black music has been huge. His two main groups, the Ritual Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, create a bridge between jazz, the blues, and African rhythms and musical practices. He’s also collaborated extensively with David Murray, and worked with Pharoah Sanders and the late violinist Billy Bang.

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In A Gentrified LA, XL Middleton Fights for Modern Funk’s Future

XL Middleton

Dam-Funk catalyzed Los Angeles’s modern funk scene in the late ‘00s, releasing records like the canonical Toeachizown and spinning rare vinyl at his beloved but now defunct weekly, Funkmosphere. When producer/singer/rapper XL Middleton discovered Funkmosphere, he found an audience for the music he had been making in secret—a community equally captivated by shimmering keytar solos and the robotic talkbox warblings of Roger Troutman.

“When I started making modern funk records, it was something I kept to myself… I was used to putting out rap records,” Middleton says, reflecting on the albums he released via his first independent label, Crown City Entertainment. “Finding the modern funk community was a huge thing for me.”

Today, the 37-year-old Pasadena native is a central figure in L.A.’s modern funk scene. The co-founder and head of MoFunk Records, which issues everything from the helium-pitched, narcotic-riddled narratives of Zackey Force Funk to the R&B-influenced funk of Pasadena singer Moniquea, he also produces many of the label’s releases. When he isn’t performing or working his cramped, record-filled studio in Glassell Park, Middleton helms Salt Box Records, the funk-centric record store he opened in Chinatown in 2017. Plus, he also co-hosts/DJs monthly club night Pop Lock Funk at Melody Lounge (across the street from Salt Box) and organizes the annual Modern Funk Fest. Without Middleton’s label and events, L.A.’s modern funk community would be woefully bereft.

“There’s a huge void that’s been left [since Funkmosphere ended],” Middleton explains. “A lot of us have been trying to start our own things. It’s not easy. That’s for sure.”

XL Middleton

2 Minutes Till Midnight, Middleton’s latest MoFunk solo release, is the best album of his decade-plus career, a brilliant synthesis of the two sides of his catalog. Rooted in decades of music created in and popularized by L.A., it’s one of modern funk’s first rap albums, comfortably riding the median between funk and G-funk. With features from Zackey, Moniquea, and G-funk luminaries Domino and Kokane, the songs are equally primed for backyard BBQs and roller rinks. But, more than anything, 2 Minutes Till Midnight offers a nuanced depiction of life in L.A.’s rapidly changing, smog-shrouded sprawl.

“We’ve got decades of music where we’ve covered dancing and being in love,” Middleton explains. “I think [exploring other topics] is going to be one of the factors that determines whether [modern funk] is going to be a lasting thing that people look back on and remember instead of something they rediscover.”

For those unfamiliar with the sound of  “modern funk,” the Middleton-produced instrumentals on 2 Minutes Till Midnight are the perfect primer, a deft amalgam of P-funk, ’80s boogie, and G-funk. There are P-funk’s thick, rubbery bass lines that hit your gut (“Trippin”); glinting synths imported from ‘80s boogie that pump dopamine from your cortex with every squiggle and squeal (“PTL”); drums that harken back to those of G-funk auteurs like Battlecat, knocking so hard they could make a corpse pop and lock (“Where We About to Take It”). It’s music that makes you feel as though all of L.A. is a sand-covered coastline forever backlit by lava-lamp sunsets, a place where people cruise past gently swaying palm trees in floating, Wonka-colored Impalas instead of gritting their teeth as they inch their cars past three car pile-ups and homeless encampments.

Lyrically, Middleton captures this cognitive dissonance. There are several love songs—including “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which hilariously chronicles the difficulty of dating a partner who lives several freeways away in L.A.—and those with lyrics that celebrate the scenic parts of the city (“Since I only got sixteen to summarize / It’s tempting to talk about palm trees and summertime” on “What She Sounds Like”). But he tempers those songs with others that grapple with far bleaker realities. “Gentched Up,” for instance, tackles gentrification and the affordable housing crisis that’s contributed to a 12% increase in homelessness in Los Angeles County in the last year. It’s a knotty issue, but Middleton doesn’t spend his time pointing at faceless hipsters. (“In the city with no rent control / It’s where it’s less than ethical / Hit ‘em with the eminent domain and your home turns to rubble,” he sings on “Gentched Up.”) Instead, he analyzes the erection of exorbitantly priced condos and the influx of tech money as fair mindedly as anyone who’s watched friends and neighbors forced out of their life-long residences.

“The song was in my mind for a about a year or better before I wrote it down. Primarily, I was thinking about Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, Boyle Heights, and Downtown L.A. But I also realize it’s happening in every city. I tried to write it from that perspective.”

Short of dismantling capitalism, Middleton doesn’t have a solution to the forces shaping and erasing cities all over the U.S. For now, though, he’s optimistic about the future of modern funk and the role that its lyrically-inclined iterations can play in movingly documenting all there is to love and lament about L.A.

“The modern funk scene is just beginning to get out of the all instrumental phase. There’s grooves that might make you dance, but you need words for the music to really mean something to you. I think modern funk was missing that for a while.”

-Max Bell