FUGEES / “Zealots”
I’ma be brief.
“I Only Have Eyes For You” is the reference, but not the song itself, rather a specific version of the song. Written around 1933, the song was a staple of the “Swing Era.” Jazz singers galore (including Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald) rocked it all the time. The song became a standard. But then in 1956 something else happened.
The Flamingos, one of the first wave of doo-wop groups to record and become popular, dropped their classic Chess records version of the song. So classic, that most people completely forgot about the song as a standard and only heard it as an R&B vehicle for four-part-harmony male-group crooning. And it is this version that Lauryn references and remakes. The doo-wop part is obvious, but what is not so obvious, unless you really know the song, is how Lauryn uses the melody to shape her rap. In this regard, she is like a jazz musician quoting a song in the middle of her solo. It’s impressive. Impressive that she does it flawlessly. More impressive that she had that song in her repertoire to reference.
Were this the only example, one might consider it a fluke or a gimmick. But as listening to the two J. Period-produced CDs makes clear, Lauryn knows her music. I believe her knowledge of the tradition is what distinguishes her from most of her vocal contemporaries.
Speaking of contemporaries, this is as good a time as any to raise the question: what’s up with choosing Mary J. Blige to portray Nina Simone while Lauryn Hill is still walking the face of the earth? Sure Mary J. got pipes and drama in her life through which she can channel “some” of Nina’s notoriously difficult personality, but what else? I mean, really, think about it. Wouldn’t Lauryn be a better choice, a conscious choice? Besides Lauryn even look a lil bit like Nina.
Ok, so that’s my Lauryn Hill vs. Mary J. moment.
Y’all got it from here.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
First, it’s funny that Kalamu chose this track because, coincidentally, the track I picked for this week’s Classic (“Some Seek Stardom”) features Lauryn doing the same ‘quoting’ thing with another old pop/jazz standard, “Moody’s Mood.” Obviously, Kalamu is right: Lauryn does indeed do some listening outside of her chosen genre. That’s one of the attitudes that I find so annoying about some hip-hop artists—they seem to think the whole world is hip-hop. You ask them what they listen to, what they’ve studied, and they’ll name fifteen or twenty of their favorite MCs. (Of course, I’ve heard some jazz artists do the same thing, but that’s another story.)
The other thing I want to mention is, I thought the 1956 Flamingos version of this song was the original. Of course, seeing as how I was minus-15 years old in ’56, I know nothing about the song’s original popularity; I first heard it when I went to see a De Niro movie some of you might remember named A Bronx Tale. “Eyes For You” was the romantic theme of the movie—the movie used it very well. I loved the juxtaposition of the hype-sounding ‘Doo-wop! Shoo-wop!’ mixed with the mellow smoothness of the lead vocals. Beautiful.
When “Zealots” came out in 1995, I don’t remember thinking much about “Eyes For You.” I recognized the sample, of course (the De Niro movie was only a couple of years old), but I don’t think I even noticed that Lauryn was quoting the melody in her cadence.
One more thing. I’ve mentioned before how much I like René Marie; no coincidence then, that her version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” is a favorite of mine. As I mentioned, I thought “Eyes For You” started out as a doo-wop tune; her much more jazzy version of the song really impressed me. Now that I’m finding out it was a pop standard to begin with, maybe René was just performing it in the old style. You be the judge.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Everything is everything
All I got to say is: when you start to listening to René Marie, you’re entering a whole other galaxy of music. A couple of quick references you might not know but they are in there: obviously bossa nova (but I think it’s more a jazz/latin reference via Nat 'King' Cole who was doing that drumless trio thing with a bongo player providing latin rhythms). Another references is Nancy Wilson, especially in the timbre of her voice with all that air up in her sound, like you can feel her breathing, but the influence is subtle and simply an influence and not an outright copying (or biting) of Nancy’s style.
What René Marie has that is missing among many is a mature sense of improvisation that takes great chances without sounding like she is just doing something for the sake of being different. Another important (or at least important to me) point is that René Marie is dedicated to being a jazz vocalist, which requires a whole other bag of musical responsibilities than those the average pop singer has to tote. Although anything is possible, I really, really doubt that Lauryn will ever be able to sing this well, and conversely, no doubt, René Marie will never be able to rap as well as Lauryn does.
Finally, this little exchange points out why and how Mtume and I hear the same things differently. I don’t have his experiential knowledge and intellectual knowledge of rap. I can’t explain it even one-fifth as well as he breaks it down. I don’t have a ton of MCs up in my ear. When you go beyond the hits and the superstars, I can’t immediately tell one from the other. So my ability to analysis rap as rap is limited, which means that I have to shut up and listen a lot of times because I just don’t know. At the same time, it’s also not the music of my youth nor the soundtrack of the majority of my experiences, so very often it does not immediately grab me. I have to go to it.
But, see, when you get an artist like Lauryn, I respond because there are some other things happening, other influences, other experiences which I catch immediately and this affinity for the artist is even more pronounced with a vocalist like René Marie. That we both agree that Lauryn is a supreme MC and René Marie is superb jazz vocalist is precisely the nexus that should always be present in our musical appreciation. Regardless of what era we’re coming from, we should always be able to recognize greatness within its own context and always be aware that no greatness stands apart from a traditional foundation—the sweetest fruit comes from the trees with the deepest roots in fertile ground.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 29th, 2006 at 4:16 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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