GREGORY ISAACS / “New Lover”
In the 21st century, being a knowledgeable music fan is as much about following production credits and searching out sample sources as it is about collecting records or recognizing particular voices or instruments. You can set out to do one thing (find the origin of rhythm track of a unauthorized mash-up track you happen to like) and end up doing something else entirely (downloading semi-obscure roots reggae tunes and chasing down thirty-year-old movie quotes). The search could lead you nowhere or it could lead you to something as sweet and sublime as this week’s feature Cover cut. But let’s go back to the beginning. It was a couple of years ago when I first heard a nice bootleg remix/mash-up of the 2003 Alicia Keys hit “You Don’t Know My Name.” I was really digging that rhythm – gentle but funky; hype yet mellow. It gave the song that extra little something. It was weird but quite enjoyable to hear a record I’d already heard so many times suddenly sound so different. Of course, the original hit version of “You Don’t Know My Name” isn’t bad either – that chorus in particular sticks to your mind like candy does to teeth. Not long after I got hip to the reggae mash-up, I came across a tune by the Main Ingredient named “Let Me Prove My Love To You.” If you haven’t heard that one yet, just wait until the ‘ooh-oohs’ and the piano trills kick in. (Got it? Yeah, exactly.) I really had no idea; all this time I’d been thinking Alicia’s record was a wholly original composition. Now that I know better, listening to Alicia’s record gives me a subtler version of the feeling I get when I look over the edge of something ten or twenty stories off the ground. It’s sample-induced incongruity and it doesn’t feel all that different from vertigo. Each time the melody takes that certain turn, your heart can’t decide who to follow: Alicia in ’03 or the Persuasions in ’75. (I was talking to my sister Kiini about the Alicia/Main Ingredient sample. She said the sensation of the Main Ingredient record “tugging” her out of Alicia’s is so strong, it’s almost physical. I really do have to agree.) Getting back to the mash-up, that one is really out there a minute because you get two musical incongruities for the price of one. There’s the whole Main Ingredient vs. Alicia thing (although, as my sister pointed out, the piano part isn’t in the mashup; technically she’s right, but I hear it just the same), but now there’s also a frickin’ reggae track playing the whole time. As I said earlier, that’s weird enough on its own, but even weirder is that the reggae track sounds like it was made for the song. The vocals and instruments break at key moments and simultaneously. I figured some bored, talented individual must’ve stayed up really late one night screwing around with the two tracks until they matched up just right. A couple of weeks ago though, I heard Gregory Isaacs’ “New Lover” for the first time and I knew right away I’d been over-thinking the whole situation. The rhythm track of Gregory’s song is identical to the one used for the Alicia record – identical down to the intro, the breaks and everything else. I think the BPMs might even be the same. Even if “New Lover” hadn’t been any good, I still would’ve been happy just to have located the source of that rhythm track (because, believe it or not, these are the types of issues that keep me up late at night), but as it turns out, Gregory’s record is a work of minor genius in its own right. It takes the standard ‘wishing her well despite this broken heart’ conceit and adds a nice twist by throwing in an odd geographical reference and even a well-placed quote from classic cinema. Gregory begins the song with: “You and your new lover / I hope you’re getting on just fine.” That’s pretty much the way it’s done in this type of song. And when he starts the second verse with, “One day your new lover will take away your sunshine / And your life will be filled with raindrops, teardrops…,” you go, “OK, I get it. It’s gonna be that kind of song.” It’s a pleasant lyric with a nice riff – standard pop-song sentiments expressed via standard pop-song metaphor. Gregory is a well-seasoned professional though. His voice, even after all these years, still has that undertone of trembling helplessness that made his classic “Night Nurse” such an indispensable recording. So if you like the Lover’s Rock genre at all, you can’t help but be moved at least a little by “New Lover,” even if you have heard it all before. But let’s not write this one off as average just yet. Here’s verse three:
Now, I became much stronger When you went to live With him in California But I didn’t make no fuss ‘Cause a man in my position Can’t afford to look ridiculous*Oh, shit! Right? Nooowww, we’re talking! The first thing that grabbed me about this lyrical turn is how, instead of carrying on with the standard ‘you’re going to regret it’ theme, Gregory seems to be throwing in the towel. Like, “Alright cool, she’s gone. I’ll just live with it.” But then there’s the reason he gives for not protesting: because a man in his position can’t afford to be seen doing something like that. (The first rule of pimpdom is “be cold.” If she wants to leave, let her leave. Hell, show her the door and have your driver take her to the airport.) It’s like he’s saying he would’ve tried to make her stay but he was bound by his position to let her go. Of course that begs the question, what position? He never says. Another thing I like about the lyric is the California thing. It’s needlessly specific. And it’s precisely that specificity that lifts the overall theme from its mundane origins to a higher, better place. Why California? Probably no reason at all, but I like that he said it. Besides that, it’s audacious and kinda funny that Gregory decides to rhyme “stronger” with “California,” those being words that don’t actually rhyme at all. We’re just about done here except that I happened to see online that the rhythm track for Gregory’s tune was itself lifted from an older reggae classic – Burning Spear’s “Columbus.” I’d heard “Columbus” before but I wasn’t making the connection; I didn’t recall any similarity between the two songs. So I quickly, um, ‘acquired’ a copy of “Columbus” and gave it a spin. This time I heard it right away. The tempo is a lot slower and the horns sound a little different (a trained musician would know why – I’ll just have to settle for ‘different’), but Gregory is definitely rocking a replayed version of the Spear rhythm. And even if he wasn’t, you can’t go wrong listening to that dry and heavy moan of Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney hurling epithets (‘gangster,’ ‘damn-blasted liar’) at ol’ Chris Columbus. —Mtume ya Salaam * If you’re a Francis Ford Coppola fan, this last line should sound familiar. It’s one of the dinner scenes of The Godfather. Tom Hagen (Don Corleone’s lawyer) and Jack Woltz (the big-shot Hollywood producer who was refusing to give Corleone’s singing protégée, Johnny Fontane, a key movie role) are in the midst of a confrontation. Woltz is angry because Fontane was alleged to have impregnated one of Woltz’ biggest stars. (And, perhaps more to the point, the young lady happened to be Woltz’ favorite mistress.) Woltz says: “She was the greatest piece of ass I've ever had, and I've had it all over the world. And then Johnny Fontane comes along with his olive-oil voice and guinea charm, and she runs off. She threw it all away just to make me look ridiculous! And a man in my position can't afford to be made to look ridiculous!” Sherlock Rides Again See, me, when it comes to tracking down stuff, I get lucky; I mean I usually find trivia when I’m looking for something else entirely and I just note it down, but, Mtume, you can call off the bloodhounds if Mtume’s on the case. Just sit on the porch and wait, Mtume’ll be back with the goods in a minute. Hell, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police (them same ones who claim to always get their man), they got Mtume on permanent retainer. This is the kind of musical hide-and-go-seek rundown that makes BoL interesting to me and, I’m sure, interesting to a lot of our fans around the world. What got me was how adept Mtume is at hooking up two arcane bits of info: the Godfather reference in the same article as the Burning Spear reference. Some things make you go “hmmmmm.” This shit makes you go (like we go down in New Orleans): “Whooooaaaa Nah!” This is what higher education is all about: references and relationships. Everything is everything, you just got to know how to fit it all together. Thank you brother Sherlock Holmes, aka Mtume ya Salaam, for another brilliant lesson. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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