Tag Archives: Chicago

Certified: Johari Noelle Wants You to Remain True to Yourself

Certified is a series on Bandcamp where we spotlight artists whose work we think is worthy of additional attention.

“If we’re having negative encounters, we protect ourselves,” Chicago singer Johari Noelle says. She’s explaining her song “Too Much,” a treatise on the ways we guard ourselves during contentious situations. “We don’t really confront the problem at hand, and sometimes we’re so paralyzed by it that we don’t say anything, so we’re confined. The song encourages the idea of healthy confrontation,” she explains. “Too Much” is the first single from Noelle’s five-song debut EP Things You Can’t Say Out Loud, a collection of restorative songs about remaining true to yourself.

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Album of the Day: Psalm One, “FLIGHT OF THE WIG”

Back in the early 2000s, Psalm One pivoted from pursuing a career as a biochemist to paying dues on Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene, eventually signing to the Rhymesayers label after Eyedea caught wind of the dexterous MC’s music. Her latest release, FLIGHT OF THE WIG, is a thoroughly modern hip-hop outing that bristles with metallic rhythms and timely socio-political quips. Recorded in Minneapolis, where Psalm One relocated in search of creative change, the project’s beats are served up by a roster of producers including Optiks, who’s previously worked with Talib Kweli and Homeboy Sandman, and fellow Twin Cities representer Icetep. Collectively, they deliver bass-heavy backdrops that smartly veer towards the minimal, allowing Psalm One’s voice ample space.

On FLIGHT OF THE WIG, the rapper tackles identity politics—”I’m knowing some legends got penises / But I’m standing right here and I pee when I sit,” she raps on “WWIV”—and, on “Rock & Roll McDonaldz,” social media (“Ignorance is bliss and ain’t no fun being Twitter woke”). These big-picture takes contrast with nuanced tales of relationship woes. On “The Impossible Lover,” she laments a tryst that doesn’t allow her to be true to herself. Her rhymes flow in a swinging, scat-like fashion, as she declares: “I love you but I need to let it be / I gotta change, it’s really killing me.” FLIGHT OF THE WIG is a poignant, punchy hip-hop record, a sharp portrait of one of hip-hop’s most emotive and incisive voices.

-Philip Mlynar

Certified: On “LEGACY! LEGACY!” Jamila Woods Comes Into Her Own

 

Certified Jamilla Woods

Photography by Sarah Joyce

Certified is a new series on Bandcamp where we spotlight artists whose work we think is worthy of additional attention.

Jamila Woods likes to surround herself with artifacts of the recent past. A meticulous researcher of black artistry, Woods devours these artifacts—filmed interviews of Jean-Michel Basquiat found in the recesses of YouTube, or the collected writing of Zora Neale Hurston—repetitiously, then studies them for nuance and relevant bits of wisdom. 

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Live Without Fear: Rediscovering the Spiritual Jazz of Infinite Spirit Music

Infinite Spirit

On May 31, 1979, a group of young musicians—performing under the banner Infinite Spirit Music and led by pianist Soji Ade (sometimes credited as Soji Adebayo) with conga player Kahil El’Zabar—took three cars from Chicago to the Soto Sound Studio in Evanston and, in a single day, cut Live Without Fear. In those few hours, the band mapped a sonic world without borders. The album was a bold expression of spiritual jazz, indigenous rhythms, and thoughtful Afrocentrism; every vibration feels touched by the spirit of Sun Ra.

Like a lot of locally cut records at the time, Live Without Fear was released without much support and quickly became lost in time. Now, via Jazzman Records and its Holy Grail series, the album has been excavated for reissue, filling in a little piece of Chicago music history and belatedly showcasing the set forged by these hip young virtuosos.

“We were all similar in age, young guys who were listening to a lot of music,” remembers El’Zabar, speaking over the phone four decades later. “It was a goal and aspiration and ideal to be spiritually connected to the music you play, the musicians that you played with, and the community that listened to it. So it was, without being cliché, a very natural idea. The idea of the music for Live Without Fear, Infinite Spirit Music, was all in that sense of aspiration, so to speak.”

The album intertwines various strands of 20th century Chicago musical history. Take El’Zabar himself. A native of the city, he came up rubbing shoulders with greats like Chaka Khan (once married to El’Zabar’s childhood musician partner Hassan Khan). El’Zabar lived across the street from legendary jazz composer Roscoe Mitchell, and counted Earth, Wind & Fire horn players Don Myrick, Louis Satterfield, and Rahmlee Michael Davis as his friends. He played with cult soul star Baby Huey and his band The Babysitters, and shared bills with jazz legends like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. It was a period when the city boasted a sizeable audience for all forms of Black musical ingenuity.

“At that time, this music was being played on the radio,” says El’Zabar. “There were large audiences across the hippie community, the so-called Afrocentric community. Everyone felt that the music had importance when it came to lifting the spirit. That was the energy [of] Infinite Spirit Music—not to be afraid, to live without fear, to go for what you believe in.”

El’Zabar attended Lake Forest College while Soji Ade went to nearby Northwestern. The genesis of their group came when the two young musicians arrived in Chicago at around the same time. The pair would hang out, driven together by a mutual love for art and music. “We talked about spirituality and connecting that lifeforce to the music, community consciousness, and stuff like that,” recalls El’Zabar. “There was synergy and compassion for many of the same things so we felt it was important to collaborate.”

The group that assembled to record that summer day in 1970—described by Ade in the press notes as a day that “smelled good and spoke all day sunshine”—included multi-instrumentalist “Light” Henry Huff, bass player Mchaka Uba, percussionist and one-time member of the Sun Ra Arkestra Aye Aton, and vocalist Ka T’Etta Aton. In this case, nice weather fueled positive music. The enthusiastic chants of “Father Spirit, Mother Love” asserts the buoyancy pulsing through this young group’s worldview; the constantly shifting rhythms of “Bright Tune” speaks to the avant-garde but is propulsed by peppy rhythms. Lengthy percussion solos sit alongside smooth lounge jazz arrangements throughout the album. Yet Live Without Fear isn’t an exclusively sunny piece. The short, nearly a cappella vocal on “Soul Flower,” for instance, has a kind of doomed beauty to it.

In the mind of El’Zabar, the band’s remit for the album was burned right into its title: “Listening to it, I remember a lot of bliss and a lot of excitement about what it came to,” he recalls. “There was a lot of happiness, there was a lot of excitement because we felt we were making a statement that was going to have meaning and was going to have longevity even if it wasn’t necessarily the most popular.”

He continues, “We weren’t mimicking anybody else—we were taking influences and reinterpreting them as our own. It was that kind of confidence and thankfulness that everybody had. Like, ‘Yeah, this has got something.’”

“The beautiful thing about these guys is their modesty and earnestness,” adds Gerald Short of Jazzman Records in an email. “They make music for the reasons it should be made, to communicate a message of peace and good feelings to those that hear it. There’s no compromise to commercial values. They don’t bend to trends and fashion. It’s pure art.”

Live Without Fear was manufactured, LPs were sold and distributed around the local scene, and that was that. There are no hard narratives around why Infinite Spirit Music failed to find an audience outside of hardcore Chicago jazz fans. The stacks of private records of this type were often made spontaneously, and didn’t fit in with some kind of master plan.

“There was no marketing hype, no promotional budget, no record company backing, no commercial pressure,” says Short. “Just some musicians and the music they made together.”

Ade has remained musically active. In 2008 he released the spiritually engaged album Asase Yaa and he currently performs live with Sura Dupart and the Side Pocket Experience. El’Zabar is currently preparing to release a new album with his long-time band, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Almost simultaneously, one of his earliest records will be made available for reappraisal. But Live Without Fear is more than that. It’s a sonic footprint of an exciting time in Chicago music, marked by young cats who walked the Second City’s streets with a sense of wonder and motivation for ingenuity.

“All the young musicians, you were challenging each other’s skills and techniques and discussing history. It was enormous stimulation that I believe created epiphany across various genres. Whether it was Earth, Wind & Fire or Sun Ra, they were all speaking to spirituality, community and human upliftment through music,” says El’Zabar.

-Dean Van Nguyen

How Rapper Serengeti Embraced “Kenny Dennis,” His Shaq-Hating Alter Ego

Serengeti

Serengeti

What would it take for someone who looks like a Bill Swerski super fan— from the accent to the mustache—to become a rapper? That was the question on rapper Serengeti’s mind when he created his alter ego, Kenny Dennis.

The template for the SNL sketch, as described by its writer Robert Smigel, was simple. Smigel has said that the Chicago sports fans who worshipped former Bears coach Mike Ditka idolized him so much that they imitated his look and distinctive Midwestern accent. But Serengeti’s creation went past the mustache and blue-blocker sunglasses. He imagined there was pain beneath the braggadocio, and over the course of nine albums, he wanted to peel back layers of Dennis’s psyche.

The template was set on his 2006 album, Dennehy, where Serengeti—in character as Dennis—rapped: “Favorite rapper Dennehy, favorite drink O’Douls / Bears, ’Hawks, Sox, Bulls.” On the track, Dennis is a 40-something nobody with a beer truck route. He loves his wife Jueles and actor Brian Dennehy, but despises basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.

As Dennis came to life in Serengeti’s head, he realized that the character demanded deeper exploration. Why, exactly, would this mealy-mouthed Chicagoan think he was a legendary MC? Why was he rapping at all? Serengeti provided the backstory on 2011’s There’s A Situation On The Homefront, enlisting fellow rapper Hi-Fidel to play the part of Prince Midnight Dark Force, Dennis’s foil in their first rap group, Tha Grimm Teachaz.

There’s a rich backstory to that album: While cleaning his older brother’s garage, Dennis’s younger brother, Tanya, finds a cassette labeled “TASOTH.” The cassette, as it turns out, is Tha Grimm Teachaz’s lost Jive Records debut, There’s A Situation On The Homefront. The album perfectly mimicked the cerebral-yet-grimy sound of ‘90s legends like Lords of the Underground and Black Moon. As the album goes on, more of the story is revealed: the group’s path to success went awry at the ‘92 Jive Records Showcase in Philadelphia, where Tha Teachaz were opening for Shaq, rap group the Fu-Schnickens, and R&B singer Tevin Campbell. Shaq insults Dennis’s mustache. The group implodes and Dennis is inconsolable. Jive drops the group from its label and the Teachaz album is shelved. Dennis returns to Chicago, works the beer trucks, and plays adult league softball on the weekends.

Dennis never forgave Shaq, and the feud was reignited on 2012’s Kenny Dennis EP with the diss track “Shazam.” Produced by Odd Nosdam with cuts from Jel, the track flips Shaq’s flow from “What’s Up, Doc?” with threats that “jolly green giants get cut.” The EP was followed by a Kenny Dennis full-length, which featured narration by Anders Holm of Workaholics, who Dennis affectionately calls “Ders.” The album relays the events leading up to Dennis’s 50th birthday celebration at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Los Angeles. Early in the album, Ders and Dennis meet at Sharper Image on Michigan Avenue in Christmas 1988, when Dennis used his store credit to buy Ders a shower radio. The album-closing party is chock full of Dennis’s celebrity friends—among them, several American Gladiators and actor Michael Dudikoff. The only person who wasn’t at Dennis’s birthday party was Dennis himself.

Kenny Dennis

Kenny Dennis

The reason for Dennis’s absence is explored on Kenny Dennis III. As it turns out, Dennis had been covering up a 20-year “bennies” addiction, one that nearly ruined his marriage to Jueles. He’d sobered up around the Bulls’ first championship in ‘91, but on Kenny Dennis III he relapses—enabled by deviant named Joji. The record is haunted by neurosis, paranoia, and disillusionment. On “Shidoshi,” Dennis’s swagger falters: “I make it look good,” he swears, but his life is falling apart in the periphery: “Juele she just so upset / Makes me upset / Joji is paging me / Party is in River Forest / Party in South Holland.”

Depravity is the dominant mood throughout III, but on 2015’s You Can’t Run from the Rhythm, Dennis and Ders reunite under the name Perfecto to make an album lit up by the kind of ‘90s Eurodance production that would turn up on a record by Snap or C+C Music Factory. But despite the record’s light tone, its lyrics hint at a kind of cerebral malfunction. The album’s narrative arc is familiar: Perfecto were securing mall gigs throughout the Midwest, leading up to a climactic talent show at the Mall of America. But just before the gig, Ders’s agent scores him an audition in L.A., playing Mr. Drummond in a reboot of Different Strokes. He abandons Dennis just hours before the Mall of America gig.

For the next installment of the saga, Serengeti decided a change in perspective was necessary. Butterflies is an R&B record voiced by Dennis’s wife, Jueles. It’s 1992 again and Jueles has her own dreams of fame. Here, Dennis is a supporting character, relegated to erratic appearances in phone call interludes between sleek, bouncy ‘90s dance production. Butterflies provides a missing piece to the Dennis story, illuminating a tragedy that feeds his manic state and leads to his eventual meltdown.

The story’s conclusion comes with Dennis 6e, recorded with Andrew Broder of Fog and released on Justin Vernon’s PEOPLE imprint. Dennis is alone in an apartment, finally facing the mustache in the mirror. Gone is the good-natured humor. The tough guy bravado directed at fake MCs is revealed to be a cover for a mental break that left him stuck in the ’90s—hence Perfecto’s obsession with Shaq and C+C and the Music Factory-esque beats. On Dennis 6e, Dennis is stripped bare, reflecting on the past three decades of his life: “Tom Selleck was supposed to be Indiana Jones / I’m not supposed to be sitting in this apartment all alone / I’m not supposed to be pretending you’re just downtown.” The album is a somber swan song, the only way that Serengeti says he could conclude the Kenny Dennis saga. It took him 20 odd years, but Kenny Dennis finally divulged the truth.

-Blake Gillespie

Rapper Ric Wilson’s Newfound Basquiat Energy

Ric Wilson

Photos by Michael Salisbury

On the cover of his third EP, BANBA, rising Chicago rapper Ric Wilson resembles a young Jean-Michel Basquiat. Wilson’s hair is swept up, and he’s sitting in front of two expressionist portraits as if he painted them himself. Continue reading

A Guide to Anthony Braxton’s Robust Jazz Discography on Bandcamp

Anthony Braxton

When it comes to Anthony Braxton’s stupefyingly large discography, the major shock isn’t that he eventually found it necessary to start his own label. In retrospect, the surprise is that this development didn’t take place until the composer and multi-instrumentalist was almost 30 years deep into a masterfully inventive career.

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The Digital Resurrection of Chicago’s Trax Records

trax-1244

All photos by Rachael Cain. Courtesy Trax Records.

There are many labels that were vital to the initial explosion and global spread of house music: DJ International, Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm, KMS, Nervous: all names that can still make a house-heads ears prick up from a hundred miles away. But none of them can claim the centrality of Chicago’s Trax, founded by Larry Sherman in 1983.

Trax had everything that made house what it was—the disco feel, the raw acid (including the magna carta itself, Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”), the percussive jams, the strong Latinx influence, the deep and soulful vocal heartbreakers, and the iconically simple design of its labels. And it had everyone: Frankie Knuckles, Joe Smooth, Jamie Principle, Armando, Phuture, Marshall Jefferson, Ron Hardy, Jesse Saunders (arguably the first ever house producer), Larry “Mr. Fingers” Heard… Again, names to get clubbers of a certain age swooning, and who still continue to inspire generation after generation of young producers, now more than ever.

 

 

It was also shambolic, to say the least. The simplicity of its visual identity was less deliberate minimalism and more a reflection of the bare-bones nature of the operation. As was standard in the haphazard club music industry of the time—particularly in Chicago—untold releases were rushed out with dubious attribution, often with poor mastering and low-quality vinyl. Rarely, if ever, were proper contracts signed–ensuring that when house music blew up big internationally, confusion and hostility reigned over who rights holders were, and how they could get paid.

Feuds continue to this day over certain parts of the label’s history. However, ever present in the Trax story was “Screamin’” Rachael Caine: an associate of Sherman’s and one of the label’s early recording artists who joined the dots between punk/new wave and the nascent house scene (she avidly talks about  “that primitive freedom and the idea that you did not need fancy equipment or big studios to make great music” which she sees as common to punk and early house). In 2007, Caine resurrected Trax and, as president and owner of the brand, has managed to steer it through choppy waters since then. In 2009, the young, radical transgender artist and photographer Jorge Cruz joined as creative director, giving its visuals a technicolor re-rub and bringing yet more new house music into the fold.

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