Fresh Tracks of the Month – June 2020 – Influential Black Musicians
It’s been a chaotic spring and summer, with global protests calling for justice for George Floyd, and adjacent Black Lives Matter marches. No Matter your opinion on the politics of it, we are all people that deserve love and life. As a music school, we owe part of ourselves to musicians who came before us. In America, many of the most influential musicians in our history have been Black People of Color.
With this month’s edition of Fresh Tracks, we’ll shout out some of our favorite Black Musicians that got us to where we are today. It’s undeniable, Black musicians shaped the way modern music sounds. There’s no way we could include ALL of the Black musicians we love, so we tried to showcase a few from each decade of the 1900s. Listen below.
Louis Armstrong – Heebie Jeebies
Louis Armstrong is known for his legendary trumpeting skills, but he was a man of many talents. One of our favorites of his is the song Heebies Jeebies. He plays as great as ever, but his scatting on the song is often considering proto-rap. He wasn’t the first to scat on record but his influence helped popularize it. From there it was just a few decades before the rhythmic singing style of scatting would be reintroduced as rap.
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Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and countless others helped establish American Jazz music and develop it from where Louis and his contemporaries left it.
Billie Holiday – I Can’t Get Started
Billie Holiday was instrumental in the development of pop singing from her era. She took notice of her peers’ jazz playing and pushed her singing in that direction. She has so many beautiful records we just included the best of below.
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Billie was one of the first female and black pop musicians with the level of broad success she experienced.
Herbie Hancock – Chameleon
Herbie Hancock emerged from playing with Miles Davis’ band with his own formidable solo career. Herbie has been involved in developing so many genres that his influence can be seen everywhere.. His work in jazz, funk, and electro paved the way for modern-day electronic music.
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We wouldn’t have many of the funky sub-genres that we have today without Herbie’s influence.
Stevie Wonder – Superstition
Stevie Wonder’s contribution to pop music, soul, r&b, funk and rock n’ roll are unparalleled. He’s one of the highest-selling musicians of all time. Born blind, he was a child prodigy and put out his first hit record at age 13. His songs are funky, emotional, energetic, and calm. He’s done it all.
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So many of his songs were hits, and so many of them centered on the bassline. That focus lent its strength to his influence on funk especially.
Rick James – Give It To Me Baby
Discovering Rick James was like discovering funk music for the first time all over again. He has attitude and talent pouring out of every syllable he sings. He is funk incarnate. The outfits, the basslines, the silky smooth vocals.
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Parliament Funkadelic – Give Up the Funk
Everyone knows this song. It’s such a global hit that it’s undoubtedly played at EVERY single type of celebration. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, you name it and this song has been played at and danced to. This song is quintessential Parliament Funk (or P-funk). Slamming bassline, rhythm in the pocket, and call and response type singing.
Sly & the Family Stone had made funk Psychedelic but George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic introduced cosmic elements and established the P-Funk sound. Other bands like the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Kool & the Gang then helped bring funk into the pop world.
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P-funk is one of the defining styles that segued into West Coast hip-hop. The wonky, synthesizer laden beats were perfect for innovators like Dr. Dre to sample and present with a fresh take.
DJ Kool Herc – Let Me Clear My Throat
DJ Kool Herc is the godfather of hip-hop. His turntablism techniques introduced breakbeat, breakdance, and allowed for rapping to flourish. Without him, hip-hop simply wouldn’t exist. His song Let Me Clear My Throat is a perfect example of his influence. Looped breaks, along with his crowd engaging MC’ing, would be a mere glimpse of what hip-hop and rap have become today.
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Dr. Dre – Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang
Dr. Dre was already making waves with his music with N.W.A. and when he went solo his talents continued to influence the direction of an era of hip-hop. His debut album The Chronic nearly broke the music scene.
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He helped develop Snoop Dogg and the West Coast hip-hop scene. Without Dre’s genius for sampling funk and jazz records, and arranging them in interesting ways, the last 30-40 years of hip-hop would sound drastically different. Public Enemy, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. were big players in the gangsta rap music of the 90’s and made their priceless imprints on music history as well.
Frankie Knuckles – Let Your Love Go
Frankie Knuckles is hailed as the creator of house music. His exploration into rhythms the evolved out of the disco scene of the late ’80s would transform the world. Electronic music had been developing for 40 years at that point, but it never found a commercial home until House music. Today, electronic music has the largest followings it has ever had. It’s not just a fad.
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As house music developed out of the Detroit and Chicago scenes the world would make its own impressions on it, but nothing as distinctive.
Cajmere/Green Velvet – Bigger than Prince
Along with Carl Craig and Derrick May, Cajmere is another pioneer of the Detroit techno/house music scene. The early 90’s saw more experimentation with synthesizers from hip-hop, and house music was doing the same. Cajmere eventually created the Green Velvet moniker and kept humor alive in the music.
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Funky sounds and weird, silly records are now the norm in the house music scene, always reminding listeners to enjoy themselves.
Beyonce – Lemonade
Beyonce is one of the greatest artists of our time. Very few people have ever known fame like hers. Anything she does is an event, and everything she does is gold. One of our favorites was her album Lemonade that really set her own personality on the forefront. It has been her most critically acclaimed album to date and with good reason. The emotions and context of her marital issues set with the backdrop of racial tensions couldn’t have been more relevant.
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She has shown no indication of slowing down, and her music has actually improved further into her career which can not be said about comparably famous artists.
Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar
We threw these musicians together because they collaborate together so frequently, but they are also part of the Los Angeles beat scene and hip-hop explosion of the last decade. Flying Lotus’ experimental and mind-bending electronic jazz brings musical evolution full circle. His techniques are part of his essence (he’s a grand-nephew of John Coltrane) and though esoteric for some, his work has been as broad as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and his own side project rapping as Captain Murphy.
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Thundercat has worked extensively with Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and other Southern California rappers like Anderson Paak. The influence on Paak and many other Stones Throw records artists has been extensive. The SoCal sound is recognizable and always evolving.
There are so many other musicians that have put their touch on where music is today. There are too many for us to cover. But we’ll continue to try. If you’re interested in learning the techniques of many of these musicians, and diving into the history again then check our upcoming event on Black Music History this Sunday June 28th.