LEE PERRY & THE FULL EXPERIENCE / “Disco Devil”
Every time I hear Nina Simone’s classic version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” I’m reminded of a fairly obscure Lee Perry record named “Disco Devil.” Why? Follow me now.
Nina Simone – “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – From Broadway Blues Ballads (Phillips, 1964)
Nina first recorded (one of) her (many) signature song(s), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” in 1964 in New York City. That was more than forty years ago, so it seems strange that two major hip-hop songs have dropped in the last year featuring Nina’s intro from “Misunderstood” as the hook. (Devo Springsteen sampled Nina for Common’s “Misunderstood” and Will.I.Am did the same for Lil’ Wayne’s “DontGetIt.”)
That wasn’t the first time I heard a hip-hop record that sampled Nina’s song though. I’ll talk about the first time in the next segment. For now, check out what Langston Hughes had to say about Nina as part of the original liner notes to the Broadway Blues Ballads LP.
Why should one like Nina Simone because she sings a song differently? Plenty of singers sing songs differently. But many singers strain so hard to be different, pay arrangers so much money to make their songs sound different, but have no convictions themselves about what they are singing, and so seem hollow, artificial, fake, and wrong when they sing a song. Nina Simone is as different as beer is from champagne, crackers from crepes suzettes, Eastland from Adam Powell, Houston from Paris – each real in their way, but Oh! how different….Well stated, sir.
Jay-Z/Nina Simone/Sol-Kaliba – “I’m No Angel” – From The Blackest Album (Promo Only, Year Unknown)
In 2003, Jay-Z dropped The Black Album and then quickly followed the official release with an acapella version. The intent of the latter was to make things easy for all the unofficial remix and mash-up artists out there. I don’t think anyone, including Jay himself, could have imagined what would happen next. The internet went nuts: instead of remixing this or that song, amateur (and professional) production wizards remade entire sections of the release, some even re-did the album in its entirety.
In the end, over one hundred Jay-Z remix/mash-up albums were created, some with production better than the original songs. For example, Sol-Kaliba’s “I’m No Angel,” a lovely mash-up of Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” and Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” I first heard this one back in ’06 after Scholar posted it at Souled On Music and since then it’s become one of my all-time favorite mash-ups. I’ve listened to it so many times that nowadays the original sounds like the remix to me instead of the other way around.
Jay-Z – “Lucifer” – From The Black Album (Def Jam, 2003)
The original track as produced by Kanye West. I like it, and before I heard some of the unauthorized remixes and mashups, I really liked it. But several of the unauthorized versions picked up on the inherently somber and reflective mood of the lyrics, something that Kanye’s track doesn’t do. The track is nice, but it might be better served by a different set of lyrics. But (and this is a big ‘but’), Kanye was prescient enough to sample our next selection.
Max Romeo & The Upsetters – “I Chase The Devil” – From War Ina Babylon (Island, 1976)
Goddamn. This is a stone-cold roots classic that is somehow both omnipresent and (relatively) rarely heard. The production is by the legendary knob twirler and sound effects master Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry while the much-debated lyrics feature our hero, Max Romeo, running the devil from Earth to outer space where he (the devil) is forced to find “another race” to bother.
Questions. Is that an iron shirt Max is wearing (for flame resistance, I suppose) or an ironed shirt (as one might wear to church)? Does ‘earth’ really rhyme with ‘shirt’? What does ‘evilous’ mean?
I have no answers but I do know this: if you don’t like “Chase The Devil,” you don’t like reggae. It just doesn’t get any better than this one. Except for…
Lee Perry & The Full Experience – “Disco Devil” – Originally from 12” Single (Upsetter, 1977). Currently available on Trojan Legends (Sanctuary/Trojan, 2005)
“I’m gonna put on my ironed shirt / And dub you out of Earth!”
As good as Max Romeo’s “I Chase The Devil” is—and man oh man, is it good—Lee Perry’s “Disco Devil” might be even better. Ostensibly a dub version of “Chase The Devil,” Perry’s record is actually so, so much more. Instead of just stripping out the vocals, playing around with the echo chamber and sliding the bass and drum tracks up and down (which is how most dubs are done), Perry recruits a trio of female backup singers and writes all new (OK, mostly new) lyrics.
You think Max Romeo’s record is confusing? Try “Disco Devil.” On “Chase,” you can at least hear what Max is saying even if you can’t understand what the words mean. But Perry’s “Disco” is so lo-fi that everything sounds like it’s coming at you through several layers of dust, grit and grime. A further complication is provided by the way Perry talk/sings. His accent is nearly indecipherable while his voice is the most bizarre-sounding mumble/screech in all of reggae music. For most of this record, instead of actually listening to the lyrics, I’m reduced to just picking out random words here and there.
I can’t tell you what the hell Perry’s talking about, but I’m fairly certain he says the following words or phrases: “disco devil,” “disco rebel” and “make no trouble.” The girls talk about how “she bump” (or something like that) “to nothing but the skank” (or something like that). Then there’s this one line where Perry seems to be saying, “You can’t tempt Jah-man with no cocaine.” True? False? I don’t know. I’m not even sure I heard it right.
So now we’re three and a half minutes in and I’ve already decided this is the best dub in the history of dubs. Perry shrieks “Who dat!” (or something like that) for about the twentieth time in a row and the record echoes to a close.
Are you ready for this?
Except the volume suddenly kicks back in and Perry proceeds to dub the dub! That’s right, the long version of “Disco Devil,” which is the dub version of Lee Perry’s production of Max Romeo’s “I Chase The Devil” actually includes a dub of ITSELF! Pure genius.
And there you have it. From Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to Lee Perry’s “Disco Devil” in five easy steps. I'm out... .
—Mtume ya Salaam
A couple of questions
First, let me say: right on for Nina Simone. We are now going into our fourth year of BoL, and though we could not/would not have predicted it when we started, Nina Simone is by far the most featured artist on BoL (and hardly any duplication of tracks, it is important to add).
Second, professor before you go, I have a couple of questions.
I’ve asked this question before, so actually this is more rhetorical than actually something for you to respond to, however, I don’t hear the technical brilliance in Jay Z. Now, I understand that the common consensus is that Jay Z is the shit, technically, but I don’t hear it. I think he’s very good, but I don’t think he has better narrative drive than Nas, nor is he as witty as Lil’ Wayne. (I know, I know he’s non-sensical and will say anything but no one says nothing with more weight than Weezie, no one drops bullshit more brilliantly.) I mean strictly on a technical level, I here others whom “I like” better. So prof can you tell me why you think so highly of Jay Z?
My second question is really a statement for your reaction. Mao Tse-tung speaking about bourgeois art said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that such art was so pernicious precisely because it was usually technically adept while being politically backward. Well, I have included a statement from Nina Simone in made during an interview. I would like your reaction.
I believe that what kind of art an artist creates should be left entirely to the discretion and/or desire of the artist. I don’t think all art has to have a political intent on the part of the artist even as, at the same time, I believe that regardless of intent, all art is political.
Like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, two artists whom I intensely admire, I believe that all art reflects not only the artist but also the social conditions and reality that produces the artist, and furthermore that socially responsible artists strive to make their artwork reflect their consciousness, and beyond that, that revolutionary artists create art that inspires people to not only change their minds but indeed inspires people to try to change the particulars of their own social situation. The purpose of revolutionary art is to inspire social change, not just individual “intellectual” or “personal” change, but social change.
Professor, I’d like to know your opinion. Agree. Disagree. Or don’t care one way or the other.
While you’re think it over, I’ve added both the Lil’ Wayne (from The Carter III) and the Common (from Finding Forever) tracks to the juke box.
Agree or disagree, both of them are talking mucho shit.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Questions and answers
First off, Common and Wayne or woooooorld's apart in terms of their consciousness and subject matter. What do you mean when you say "both of them are talking mucho shit?" Common is talking about people who've fallen on hard times due to social pressures. Whether you like it or not, the subject matter is fairly serious, heartfelt and introspective. For the record, I'm not crazy about it, but I'm mystified at how someone could listen to what Common is saying and say he's "talking mucho shit." About what? When?
Wayne? Whatever. (No, I can't just say whatever. Here goes nothing.) Look - I like Wayne. Despite his frequent claims, dude isn't the greatest rapper alive mainly because he's almost always one of the highest rappers alive. If he would get off the coke, weed, E, codeine and God knows what else he seems to stay on 24/7, dude would have shot at living up to his opinion of himself. (Well, almost.) By that, I'm talking about his wittiness, his flow and his ability to just make you enjoy the way he puts one word behind another one. He is really adept at leading you in one direction, switching it up on you, then putting you right back where you thought he was going...or, nope...he's going out in left-field and you're looking the wrong way. That's his talent. But this track ("DontGetIt") is terrible because Wayne is at his best when he's: a) rapping and b) being witty, sarcastic or just fucking around. So what does he do? Talk. (Mistake #1.) And two, try to make sense in a straight-forward manner. (Mistake #2.)
Sometimes, Wayne says deep shit when he's rapping. It may or may not be partially or completely accidental, but that's the beauty of music - we can't necessarily tell and if the flow and the beat or hot enough, we don't really care. But once you start talking right down to Earth and in a language everyone out there can easily understand (y'all see where I'm going with this?), your weaknesses come to the fore. Wayne is not a thinker. He's not even a semi-intellectual. He's not particularly well-informed about either current or historical events. He's not a reader. And he's DEFINITELY not a public speaker. I don't know any of this factually, but it's fairly easy to come to these conclusions based on listening to him stumble and fumble around while trying to enunciate fairly straight-forward points. Furthermore, if you're high as fuck, that's a bad time to try to get all serious and intellectual. Of course, Wayne is always high as fuck (apparently). So I guess that would be a problem. In the end, I would say, rappers should stick to rapping. (Except Chuck D. He can run a lecture hall like nobody's business. Then again, he doesn't do drugs and he reads a lot. Aspiring intellectuals, take note: hard drugs and ignorance are not recommended precursors to your post-hip-hop public speaking career.)
The other notable thing about Wayne's track...goddamn it, I'm standing on the verge of a rant again - I hate when this happens...is that he SOMETIMES does make sense. And then he subverts his own good points by giggling at all the wrong moments, or slurring something completely nonsensical, or cursing for no apparent reason, or contradicting himself. They should hire someone to follow Wayne around and anytime Wayne stops rapping, Mr. Follow Wayne Around should cut off the microphone. OK, I'm done with that.
As for Kalamu's lengthy statement about what "socially responsible" art is or isn't or should or shouldn't be, I guess I agree, but only in the limited scope of the actual sentence. Meaning, if an artist sets out to be socially responsible, then yeah, I guess all that stuff applies. But some people just want to sing a pretty song or flow lovely over a drum track. And lots of people - including me - really enjoy hearing pretty songs and tight flows. I don't really give a crap if a song, or an artist, is socially responsible. I don't consider it an artist's obligation to be responsible about anything other than making sounds that are pleasing (or jarring in a pleasing way) to the listener's ear. That's why I like Survival AND Kaya. I like What's Going On AND I Want You. I mean, explain to me the socially responsible side of a Joan Armatrading. Joan's a genius, but her records are about romance. So yes, I agree that socially responsible art should be socially responsible. But I also agree that water is wet and the sun is hot. Meaning, although I agree with the statement, I won't exactly be requesting it to be carved on my tombstone.
I was reading this article one time about Max Roach. Max happened to be a big fan of hip-hop. An incredulous interviewer asked Max what was so political about LL Cool J. Max said, "The politics is in the drums." See what I'm saying? So I can't be all down on someone because their specific lyrics might not be overtly political or socially conscious. I think flowing tight over a funky drum beat is a beautiful thing. Period. That's enough for me. Same thing for other styles of music: one of the prettiest melodies I ever heard Gil Scott-Heron sing wasn't even words. It was just, "La da dee dee daaaa...." It's so pretty, you know? I just love it. I don't care what the words are. What I'm trying to say is, for me, music is sounds arranged in a meaningful manner. The end. An artist's job is to communicate some kind of truth or beauty or humor or whatever else is on their mind. That's the way I see it. If I don't care for their style of art, I listen to something else. Or like The World Famous Supreme Team used to say, "If the show doesn't help you, change the station!"
Jay-Z. Maybe I'll have to do a Jay-Z post one of these days. Dude's flow is ridiculous, that's why people think he's so great. That's the short answer. He's also very adept at layering his metaphors. I remember this one record where he was using all these basketball metaphors, talking about Jordan and different shots and all. I thought he was just comparing basketball and his rhyme skills. But then I went back and noticed that he said, "Watch how quickly I drop fifty." And he was beefing with 50 Cent at the time! So then when you listen to the verse again, it's actually a double metaphor where he's talking about basketball, rapping AND he's dissing 50 Cent. But he's slick and subtle with it; it's easy to miss, especially if you're not listening repeatedly and not catching everything.
I'm also thinking about something like "99 Problems" where he talked about not getting into it with some dude because he didn't want to go "back through the system with the riff-raff again." Riff-raff? Come on, that's comical. Who uses a phrase like riff-raff? Nobody. Coming where it comes in the midst of a hardcore rap record, it's contextually bizarre. Which is why it's such a good choice - you can't possibly see it coming. At the same time, it effectively communicates Jay-Z's attitude about himself (haughty, self-possessed, wealthy) vs. his attitude about the common criminal (not even important enough to dis properly) much better than him yelling, "Bitch, I'm rich!" (Don't laugh. His competitors do just that.) So anyway, I could blah blah blah about it, but if you don't like Jay-Z, you don't like Jay-Z. It's like the Prince thing. I can't talk you into liking something you don't. And either way, he and Beyonce will probably be OK. I hear his club in Vegas his doing well.
What else. Chairman Mao's quote. Umm....I guess I agree. Wayne is definitely technically adept while being politically backward. And he sure is pernicious. Wait - I just looked that up. I thought it meant popular. It actually means, "deadly, fatal, causing insidious harm." I just changed my mind. I disagree with the quote. I honestly don't care if the music I listen to is politically backward. That's just me.
Conscious people have this tendency to assume that everyone else is screwed up because they aren't conscious. But 'conscious' is just one way to be. It's just a set of opinions rounded out into a decree or over-arching set of opinons or what have you. That's all. It's not the law. It's not "the truth." It's just one way to do things. Honestly, I happen to think it's a good way to do things. More power to conscious people. Really. Eat your vegetarian food and burn your incense all you want. Change the world while you're at it. It can't get much worse than Bush, so go for it. I just want to say that everybody else is OK with me too.
That's it. This has gone on way too long.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Oh, that means "rolling on the floor laughing my black ass off"! I didn't mean "talking mucho shit" in a pejorative sense (hey, what's with Kalamu using all this big-ass "p" words?)—(oh, he's just having a P-Funk Phlash-Light, I mean "flash back," or something. Wow, prof., I didn't mean you needed to give me a thesis but, uh, ok.)
Now, I'm 'bout to start some more shit, ah, stuff... I don't mean it in a negative way, I'm just saying, here is something else as a topic for intellectual discussion. Do you think twenty years from now anybody will be sampling Jay-Z or Common, Kanye or Weezy?
The problem, or I should say, my problem with "everything is everything, can't we just get along, let everybody do their thing in peace" is that capitalists, in particular, and their running dogs (politicians who justify the economic/political system of capitalism—and yeah, before somebody thinks I'm joking, I'm including Obama in that bunch), anyway, the planet is being fucked with and it's debatable how much longer capitalism can continue before permanently messing up the planet and, as a by-product, hastening the end of the human species as we know it.
I don't usually go off but the ice caps are melting (and Bush is talking about drilling in Alaska), Cali is on fire, it's flooding in the midwest, and that's just the good ole USA, the rest of the world is in the danger zone too, or to quote Ray Charles, "the danger zone is everywhere." This is real, not metaphorical.
I know we disagree on some issues and we also agree on a lot of issues; I think that's what makes BoL interesting and keeps both of us honest. Listen to Nina's statement again. What people do is up to them but what people do (or don't do) also has ramifications for generations to come.
And the reason our music is so important is that, whether intentionally or not, our music resonates with the world because the music is reflective of what's happening in the world. I know that Weezy says he doesn't give a fuck and that Common says he does but I find it interesting that both of them are using Nina Simone singing "don't let me be misunderstood."
All I'm trying to do is push us towards making some shit as relevant to the future as Nina Simone is to this generation of rappers (and to millions of us) today.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. Theoretically, I understand what you're saying about Jay-Z. Want to encourage you to do a "Classic" post on him and put the relevant examples in the jukebox. Some of us are slow (when it comes to a deep understanding of rap) and would like to catch up.
P.P.S. The Nina Simone interview quote is available on Protest Anthology, which has a bunch of interview segments in between the musical selections. I don't care how much Nina you already got, do yourself a huge favor and add Protest Anthology to your collection.
I belong to it
You asked, in bold type, "Do you think twenty years from now anybody will be sampling Jay-Z or Common, Kanye or Weezy?" You may have been asking that rhetorically, but I have an answer for you anyway. The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. Not only do I think so, I can practically guarantee it.
Your question (or comment, really, since I think it was more of a statement than a true question) is eerily similar to the question one of my uncles (my mom's brother Eric) asked me more than twenty years ago about Public Enemy. He was talking about how ignorant and stupid rap music is. The trouble was, back then, there was a lot of rap music that WASN'T ignorant and stupid. Funny how the music was behind the curve as compared to the judgmental attitude of the adults who hate it. But I digress. In any event, I played a Public Enemy song for him while he read along (I gave him the lyrics sheet). At the end of the song, he had to admit that it wasn't ignorant or stupid, but he said, (and I quote...in a hazy paraphrase-ish sort of way), "Do you really think people are going to still be listening to this stuff twenty years from now?" Ummm...yeah.
The big mistake the older generations make is to assume that the younger generation will eventually grow up and learn to recognize that the older generation's music is better than their own. But it doesn't necessarily work that way. You like what you grew up on. I happen to have grown up on a lot more than hip-hop, so I like a lot more than hip-hop. But hip-hop his "my" music. I don't even like it anymore, but I can't not claim it. It belongs to me and I belong to it. Sometimes, it's like being stuck in a fucked up family. But what can I do? Get a divorce? No, it's part of me. It just is what it is.
So anyway, it's sad to even have to answer this question, but the answer is 100% yes. People will be sampling all of this stuff twenty years from now. The only way they won't is, a) they'll have come up with some other way of musically referencing the past, or b) the artists in question will be considered too popular to actually surprise anyone. Other than that, you'll be hearing it all. These cats are somebody's hero. Twenty years won't change that one bit.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Ok. I hear you and in general I agree.
I was specifically talking about "sampling" rather than only listening to a record. I see and understand the pattern in the jazz context, wherein in order to do something new you had to first master something old. All of the innovators and major creators had mastered an earlier form before putting their stamp on the music and extending it.
You are totally correct about the music of one's youth—and this is why it's so impotant to expose young people to more than a very narrow range of their cultural legacies. Even if you don't like it when you first hear it, you need to know that exists and know that it belongs to you, that it is not only a part of you but that in order for you to be fully you, you need to be aware of this other part of you—like it or not. Your metaphor of family is precise and accurate—like or not, love them or hate them or not even know them, that's still your family and at a basic genetic level try as some of us might or might want to, there is no way to un-family one's self, no way to totally leave what you were born into, although (and this is a major caveat) through conscious identification there is a way for one to adopt/foster a new family, except even then, in so doing, you have not left the old family only moved into another family. The original is with you to the grave even if you don't manifest it.
Shit, this week's discussion is approaching book territory. ;->)
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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