Ever since “shutting down“ the Ableton group here in Denver and then walking away from music performance and various projects for other endeavors, I have finally experienced a long overdue personal music renaissance.
The renaissance was only realized when a friend came out to visit and I saw him constantly in the corner of the house with Shazzam snagging songs from the speaker. Music discovery is hard, but I understand that I am in that minority listener category who “digs deep”.
Reflecting back on my career in music it is crystal clear everything I did was cerebral (sometimes inebriated, but still cerebral). A few out there may have caught easter eggs in my music, mixes, and sampling - good for you. My first easter egg hunt was Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique when I was still a teenager. By far one of my strongest influences musically from the dawn of digital sampling. Think about it, a few punk guys who knew almost no chords and could hold a beat grabbed an early sampler defined a genre.
My eyes were further opened when my wife asked me to open up on how I use Spotify, our main grind, as we upgraded our plan to dedicated accounts. Digging deep may have started with music, but working in software it is common to have headphones on 8 or more hours per day. It’s pretty f*cking great, but you need to develop skills to find and explore music or listen to the same stuff ad nauseam. She was in that feedback loop and wanted to escape.
More on skills in a bit. Links below for music are for Spotify but can serve to help find the same music for other services.
So let’s start with how I found an important new favorite music project and trace some lineage via my Spotify discovery. These projects, and they really get me worked up, are Budos Band and Antibalas - both Afro-revival-funky beat driven live acts. Getting to these projects is not easy, here is the path:
Bjork in an old interview talked about Omar Souleyman (amazing, different thread required but start by listening to “Warni Warni” in a right wing neighborhood really loud). Omar seeded the suggestion engine with bands I consider “junk music” where “junk” is not an insult. In these projects a lot of heat comes from the Lagos/Nigeria music scene. The “junk” (my term) refers to how they put together music from found or repurposed items where the artist does not have the resources of a first world nation. The resulting sound and effort is spectacular. Too many to name and many times more forgotten to the sands of time. Consider the use of electrified thumb piano (Mbira) made from salvaged guitar parts to provide a solid backbone. Only a short lived all white hipster band would try that in your local pub. #Brooklynn
Diving down the junk music rabbit hole, the aforementioned Lagos music scene really resonated with me. It was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s productions like the Funkees with songs like Akula Owu Onyeara. Uplifting and representative of the genre, the a classic tone aged quite well. Also consider selections like “Rough Rider” by The Hygrades, “Ugali” by the Tony Benson Sextet, or American artists like Rufus Thomas’s “Sixty Minute Man“ from 1970 (NSFW and I like it!). One interesting take away from this region and sound, existing from 1965-75, is how many were following American music and influences like the Dead, Janis, Jimi, Dylan, and more. We often get lost here in America with how a song as an Afro beat or uses an instrument from the African Sahara. All the while American and Western European music was bending the African continent into an amazing sculpture of old world and new world sans-genre “just play it” music.
The Lagos music scene started to cross over with classic American acts, like the Meters, and eventually standard funk like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and more recent versions like the extraordinary band Speedometer from the UK (their whole library is worth close study, serious music fans will see why by browsing the discography). James Brown in particular is quite interesting as he was an instrument but also sang. Rhythm centered hot sauce backed by a band so tight in a performance that was often akin to a religious experience. Indeed church music and souther Baptist roots should not be overlooked. Not some hokey hands in the air “amen” party, I am talking voodoo or sacred rite ceremonies, the kind of thing you need a fire and lots of bare feet to stomp out right now, no time to waste, why am I the only naked person here now?
Finally Budos Band and Antibalas were fed to me via the suggestion engine. I JUST LOVE IT. Hard hitting horns out front balanced by vocals and a respectful use of vocals and guitar. It may be that any music with a leading baritone sax will get to me. The classic Vox organ tone is both piercing and quite humble. All laid on top of a thick rhythm section that leans towards trance but can stop on a dime with the rest of the band to let the reverb wash. Too delightful. My proclamation is simple, put on the right tune from these projects, like “Him Belly No Go Sweet“ from Antibalas and especially “Black Venom“ from Budos Band, and drive around slow anywhere for a Quentin Tarantino experience. Earlier today I took a drive to Black Venom, there is little more you can do than drive 10 miles per hour and slow pan your surroundings in the mid day sun. You are in the movie now…
The neighbors must think I am mad.
About those playlist skills (Spotify centric, but translatable), here are my general approaches and one important mindset note. First the mindset:
You need to be a critical and active listener and down vote bad or wrong songs as much as upvote good and correct recommendations.
Beyond critical listening, focus helps to avoid the Pandora effect. The Pandora effect is “liking” songs you normally would like and not sticking to a genre, playlist, theme, or grouping. You may love that Nickleback song (hope not ) but if you are building a funk playlist you need to down vote the ‘back as a suggestion. Otherwise all the playlists will be a worthless collection of the same crap you already like. My personal Pandora ended up being a whole bunch of Tortoise because I always upvoted items from that project.
The lack of critical listening is the ultimate downfall of Pandora. Give the masses a sophisticated genetic algorithm and see how everyone still gloms onto what was already spoon fed. I know I did.
With a few playlists concentrated on a style or genre containing 30 or more songs, the next step is to turn on Spotify radio for the playlist. The playlist is used as an anchor to get “near by” tracks for consideration [up or downvote]. Generally these considerations are based on the listening patterns of others as far as I can tell. If person likes X then they have a Y% chance of liking Z, sort by Y% descending. Generally this works well enough for discovery. It is also safe to assume some type of twenty first century payola is in effect.
The Playlist based radio is where critical and active listening is required in full force. Constantly ask:
Do I like this song?
Is it right for the playlist?
If yes and yes, then upvote and consider adding the track to the playlist and expand the seeding and cross-reference for algorithmic use.
There you go, the whole process. Next steps are to keep playlists organized, focused, and active. From the listening habit described also pay attention to [Spotify’s] custom playlists created for each account. Take the time to listen, vote, and add tracks to existing playlists. The pattern is simple but the discipline and focus is not natural, especially if music is a “background thing”.
A few last tools, all Spotify-centric but easy to crossover to other platforms. The “Fans also like” section for an artist is key, use it! Artist biography (however you get it) is huge. Influences, influenced, and guest work, remixes, appears on, and other projects are all key items and expand the potential for suggestions as well as enlightening the listener. Personally, any new artist discovered demands no less than a thorough read of the Wikipedia page, visit to their site, and a check in Instagram.
Another great part of these platforms is the ability to listen to all (or nearly all) music. I listened to all (except the late work) of Miles Davis, the whole Herbie Hancock collection, and others from start to end in chronological order. Do not discount how great these explorations can be as you hear the sound evolve, the artist mature, and get a better grasp on personal favorite tunes in the context of the album, time, and progression of the artist. Quite often a song I like may be a little “trendy” but the B-Side cuts have all the business. The song the artist wanted on the album is for me more so than the one they needed to include to chase radio play.
But that is me…
With that said, I found a new personal top 10 album I never knew existed - Herbie Hancock’s “Thrust”. I was blind to this album - hard hitting and dynamic, and fun Head Hunter era release. My first introduction to HH was the MTV Rocket video. Later in life I saw HH with the Head Hunters live in Aspen where we were chased by security all night for taking illegal photographs (still me here). Rocket was an immediate crossover and genre bending “holy cow” for the day and soon eclipsed by all the music that followed. Later HH work and crossover was neither interesting to me or part of my musical taste - unchanged to this day. But the work in the Bitches Brew era by so many artists is the juicy guts that still turns my knuckles white. Call it fusion, jazz rock, it does not matter, all the terms have baggage yet mean nothing. The playing is on point, holy shit did I just throw a glass full of whiskey across the room? So many artists put in the lame category in my mind were just older guys when I first heard them. HH is a great jazz pianist, but I had no idea about his 1965-1975 era work, how could I? Without a guru marching you through the tunes, they are no more than unexplored history and unnoticed blind spots. Without a class, homework assignment, or other motivation it is up to the listener to give a crap. A good place to start is to take a favorite song and listen to that song in the context of playing the whole album, start to finish. Did you learn anything, find a new song or change your opinion of the work?
Now, with a little determination and a subscription music service you are your own damn guru. Get to it. Go out on the ledge. It’s okay.
Before the paper runs out here it is important to mention that the good old stand by music is just as important. I have a “Superfecta” play list of currently 600+ tracks of all my favorite stuff. A lot of this stuff I was listening to when I was a kid, starting around 10 years old, and as each decade passed by I found newness. I read biographies from the era, dug in deep on Wikipedia and fan pages, searched out archival footage and interviews on YouTube, and re-listened again. The familiarity is important, but even with familiarity a listener can go further. Do you know why or where the favorite songs of your life were written? Have you ever seen your favorite song performed live, even on a video? If not, consider adding a little digging into your routine, enrich your life and find more zen and more music too.
I thought I was done… then I was “discovering more music” and felt obliged to add a few more gems.
WOW - this is great stuff, William Onyeabor’s “Fantastic Man”. William is a VERY interesting man and anyone into synths and “DIY” music should take a minute to read his wiki page. This particular song embodies perfection on so many levels and I encourage [ab]use of tropical mixed drinks, a lot of sunshine, and bare feet. The rest is up to you. Don’t forget about his song “Atomic Bomb”, a classic that transcends most other music, the Hot Chip Remix is also very strong.
”Sunny Sky” by Afrobeat Makers is another gem. I can’t really tell the date, but it does not seem modern (may be wrong). What really stands out is the HEAVY yet simple processing of vocals on top of a really wonderful minimalist music bed. I consider the final product quite progressive and delightful as electronic music.
“Kassa Kpa Sama“ by Colomach, dating back to the early 1970s, really captures the ideal tone and experience of Lagos for me. The gruff guitar work and juxtaposition is very fun. Lyrically and musically there is a lot of depth and complexity. The “native” feeling I get is strong where, as an American, the work is wonderfully new and linguistically fresh. The guitar solos are a call and response but the “gritty” solo has so much emotion. Meanwhile the response is equally as interesting as a conservative compliment. According to this page “Colomach [is] led by Northern Togo musician Gneni Mamadou, this record was recorded in EMI Nigeria's state-of -the-art studio and only ever released in Nigeria in tiny numbers.”. We are fortunate to have not lost this work to the march of time.